Italians, not Texans, building signature Dallas bridge



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Posted on November 5, 2009 at 12:16 PM

Updated Tuesday, Dec 15 at 11:44 AM

DALLAS - Seventy million dollars worth of federal, state and city funds are pouring into the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.

Supporters hope the span will be a signature for the city. But it may be remembered for something else, because the key jobs in its construction -- tens of thousands of man hours of work - are going to Italians.

On the construction site in the Trinity River bottoms, an American inspector told News 8: "If you don't speak Italian, it's going to be tough to communicate."

In broken English, a man who appeared to be a foreman, told me all the welders and helpers on the project - eleven in all - are from Italy.

The Texas Department of Transportation is buying the bridge. The steel comes from Italian company Cimolai. Cimolai imported the workers to build the span without giving Texans a chance at the jobs, which would have been required under H-2B visas, the kind specified for construction jobs.

When asked what kind of visas he and his colleagues had, the foreman in charge of the project said they had "visa for work (sic)."

Documents show the eleven men came in not as construction workers but "business visitors" on B-1 visas.

State Department rules do allow commercial or industrial workers to enter the U.S. under B-1 visas. They are permitted to enter the U.S. to "install, service, or repair commercial or industrial equipment or machinery."

The rules specifically exclude construction such as bridge-building.

TxDOT spokeswoman Cynthia Northrup White said her agency inquired about the legality of the visas "months ago" and found no problem.

The document Northrup White uses to defend the agency's position is an October 5 letter from Houston immigration attorney Beatriz Trillos Ballerini. The letter is not addressed to TxDOT, but rather to the Italian firm Cimolai, which presumably paid for her opinion.

Ballerini said the B-1 visas are "in full accordance with the federal regulations and the Foreign Affairs Manual." Ballerini cites section 9FAM 41.31N10.1 of the Foreign Affairs Manual, which lets workers use B-1 visas to "install equipment purchased from a company outside the United States."

She does not mention the part of the regulations that say the visas are not to be used for construction.

Ballerini did not return News 8's phone calls seeking clarification of her analysis.

Immigration lawyers commonly find parts of the law that fit their clients' needs to justify importing workers, while excluding parts of the law that do not.

An exhaustive News 8 investigation of aircraft mechanics found repair firms importing foreign mechanics as "scientific technicians" and "aircraft repair engineers" to fit certain sections of immigration law, when what the workers were really doing was fixing airplanes.

So it is with the Calatrava bridge.

Immigration lawyer Ballerini writes that "only highly-trained individuals screened for this project possess the specialized knowledge of Cimolai S.p.A distinctive on-site installation technique, including preparation, unique welding procedures, assembly and appropriate lifting."

This is news to Williams Brothers Construction Company, the general contractor for the bridge.

We asked company spokesman Bill Miller if Italian welders are any different than American welders. "Presumably no," he chuckled. "Nothing that I can name."

TxDOT officials admit that the Italian workers actually welded the wrong ends of two sections of the bridge together.

"They turned one of the boxes [a massive piece of support steel on the bottom of the structure] around the wrong way," TxDOT inspector Stan Ybarra told News 8. "That happens. They're only human."

All of this, however, is no joke for unemployed welders in North Texas, who might have been working on Dallas' signature bridge.

"We feel like we have American citizens being cheated out of work -- not only from the bridge, but all over by these visas," said Steve Anthony of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers. He says he could put 50 welders to work today.

Although the bridge is a signature project for Dallas, Mayor Tom Leppert said the lost jobs are not the city's problem. "That one's being run by TxDOT, so TxDOT's going to have to be the one to do the fact check, the analysis, all of those sorts of things; they're going to have to be approached."

Everyone involved in this project points the finger at someone else.?

The U.S. consulate in Milan, Italy approved the visas to "install" the bridge.

TxDOT - citing Ballerini's letter to someone else - says it is the responsibility of the general contractor to make sure the law is followed.

Williams Brothers Construction passes the buck to Cimolai.

Cimolai doesn't speak English.

And the jobless Texas welders trying to find a way to put dinner on the table tonight don't have anyone to plead their case.