Thursday, January 24, 2008

Rag Tag Tow Tips Off Police To Illegals

Ragtag tow tips off police to illegals on Parkway West

By Jill King Greenwood
Thursday, May 31, 2007

Six immigrants from El Salvador and Honduras who told police they were living here illegally as subcontractors for Verizon were arrested Wednesday morning during a traffic stop on the Parkway West.

Police said the workers called attention to themselves by driving a truck that used a rope to tow a trailer containing a heavy spool of orange cable that encases fiber optic lines.

"It looked like a huge shoestring from a tennis shoe hitching the trailer to the other vehicle," said Trooper Robin Mungo, a state police spokeswoman. "It was extremely unsafe."

Officials with Verizon and a contractor employing the men denied knowledge of their immigration status and said neither company would purposely employ illegal immigrants.

Investigators with Immigration and Customs Enforcement took into custody six of eight workers to verify their status, said Pittsburgh police spokeswoman Diane Richard. Two men had papers verifying their legal temporary status in the United States.

City police said federal investigators told them one man was wanted on an arrest warrant, but they declined to name him or the charge.

The traffic stop occurred about 8 a.m. after Pittsburgh Officers Tom Jacques and Ryan Carr, of the Commercial Vehicle Enforcement team, were alerted by a noise from the truck.

"When they drove past it, they could hear all this noise from chains and lights that were hanging off the truck and dragging on the ground," said Sgt. Ray Rippole, who is in charge of the enforcement team.

The officers stopped the truck at the Route 51 on-ramp before the entrance to the Fort Pitt Tunnel, and found "numerous safety and traffic violations," Rippole said.

The men told Jacques they were subcontractors laying fiber optic cable for Verizon. One man called the owner of the truck, and a second vehicle carrying other workers arrived. Some of those men told police they are in the country illegally, Rippole said.

The men told police they have been staying at a hotel in Bridgeville for a month.

Lee Gierczynski, a spokesman for Verizon, said the men worked with Glen Ellyn, Ill.-based Infrasource Underground Services, one of Verizon's prime contractors in Western Pennsylvania.

"We don't condone the practice of using illegal immigrants for work, and if it turns out these men were in fact working and living here illegally, they will not be working for us anymore," Gierczynski said. "We were not aware this was happening."

Infrasource spokesman John Conte, in Media in Delaware County, said the company has strict hiring policies for subcontractors, who must show proof that workers they hire are in this country legally. Conte didn't know which subcontractor the men were working with.

"We had no knowledge of this whatsoever, and we don't do business this way," Conte said.

Police cited the driver of the first vehicle, who is from Honduras, for not properly securing the trailer, having an expired license plate and registration, and not having a driver's license. None of the men in the first truck had a driver's license, but some had forms of identification that Jacques said were "very, very suspect."

The truck's owner, who arrived in a third vehicle, had a valid Texas driver's license, police said.

Gierczynski said Verizon would meet with contractors and check the immigration status of employees, but he believes yesterday's incident was "isolated, and not systemic."

He said Infrasource officials were investigating how the men were hired and "take corrective action."

Immigration and Customs Enforcement supervisors in Pittsburgh did not return numerous phone messages.

Richard said the Commercial Vehicle Enforcement team regularly patrols city roads, looking for unsafe vehicles. The team intensified its patrols after an improperly secured wood chipper broke free from a trailer in Richland on April 13, 2006, slamming into a minivan and killing a man and two of his triplets.

"After that tragedy, people are more cognizant of things like this," Richard said. "The way this trailer was hitched was deplorable, and it was hauling a very heavy spool of cable. This could have been another tragedy."

Jill King Greenwood can be reached at or 412-321-2160.