Thursday, June 16, 2011

Delaware roads: 17 migrant workers injured when overcrowded van overturns on I-95

Posted Thursday, June 16, 2011

A van crammed with migrant workers overturned on I-95 south of Newport on Wednesday morning, sending 17 people to Christiana Hospital.

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Its driver -- Elisaul C. Miranda, 20, of Philadelphia -- had no driver's license or proof of insurance, state police said. And the van, which was equipped to carry 15 people, wasn't registered.

This was the first time since 2001 that a van full of migrant workers crashed on Delaware's interstate.

But conditions that put 18 people in a vehicle are common when dealing with migrant workers, especially when they come from countries where they have little hope of progressing, said Ronald Chance, adjunct professor of intelligence analysis at Neumann University in Aston, Pa.

"The migrants will put up with anything because the village that they are coming from and the country that they are coming from has no work," said Chance, a retired federal agent who spent 15 years with the New Jersey State Police Intelligence Bureau and 20 years investigating organized crime and racketeering for the U.S. Department of Labor. "They can make enough money in 10 weeks here to feed them and house them for a whole year back in their own village."

The workers in Wednesday's crash were bound for Moon Nurseries in Chesapeake City, Md., to work as seasonal laborers when a tire on the southbound 1997 Ford Club Wagon blew out, causing it to overturn several times before stopping on the left shoulder about 1.7 miles south of Newport, said police Master Cpl. Jeffrey Hale.

All of its occupants were taken by seven ambulances to Christiana Hospital -- three in serious condition, according to New Castle County paramedics Cpl. Peter Small.

A 29-year-old man and a 34-year-old man were admitted with leg and head injuries and a 23-year-old man was admitted with head injuries, Small said.

At least one of the passengers fled the hospital without being treated.

Hale said none of the passengers was carrying identification, so their names could not be confirmed.

Miranda told troopers that a mechanical malfunction must have occurred, Hale said. When troopers examined the vehicle they found a blown front tire, Hale said.

Troopers also notified U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement about the crash to investigate whether they were in this country illegally.

Agency spokesman Harold Ort confirmed an investigation was underway.

"As a matter of policy, ICE does not comment on ongoing investigations," Ort said. "Consequently, there are no further releaseable details at this time."

An employee at the nursery described the migrants as "outside seasonal workers hired to work on the plant nurseries." The employee, who would not give his name, said that they were hired through a Philadelphia company called Grace Staffing. The nursery would not release the address or phone number of the company.

"They don't get a paycheck from us," the employee said. "We pay Grace Staffing."

According to the U.S. Department of Labor's wage and hour division list of registered individuals and corporations, Grace Staffing is not listed.

There are two different types of migrant workers, Chance said. Some are hired directly by farmers and placed in housing which is monitored by the state and federal government. Others are hired as day laborers and supplied to businesses by temporary employment agencies.

"It's cheaper for the farmer because the farmer doesn't have to pay the individual. He doesn't have to get Social Security numbers. He doesn't have to pay unemployment insurance," Chance said.

As a federal agent, Chance said he saw in Philadelphia 15 migrants living in one apartment that had one bathroom. They also are transported in vans, many without seats, forcing them to sit on the floor or wood planks.

The van involved in Wednesday's crash had seats, state police said.

"They'll have 15 people in the van and those same 15 people may be living in one apartment," Chance said. "It's just so overwhelming because there are so many of these people here right now during the picking season."

In June 2001, a 15-passenger van crammed with 19 immigrant workers hit a tanker truck on I-495 north of the Edgemoor exit. Five people were killed and several others injured.

The workers from Philadelphia were working in New Castle at a temporary employment agency.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a warning in May 2009 urging all 15-passenger van users to take precautions against rollover crashes because they have a higher rollover risk than other passenger vehicles, especially when fully loaded.