Immigration authorities arrest 13 Korean workers at SK battery plant

Kim Jun (from left), SK Innovation CEO, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, Gov. Brian Kemp, and Chey Jae won, SK Executive Vice Chairman, joined in a groundbreaking ceremony on March 19, 2019 for an SK automotive battery plant in Jackson County. The Korean plant represents one of the largest economic development projects in the state’s history. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

SK Innovation says workers at construction site hired by contractors

Georgia’s largest economic-development project in a decade has been hit with its second round of arrests targeting illegal workers in four months.

Federal authorities on Wednesday arrested 13 Koreans employed at SK Innovation’s $2.6 billion construction site in Commerce, said Lindsay Williams, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman. They were later released on an “order of supervision,” he said, declining to discuss the matter further since it’s under investigation.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents in May arrested 33 Koreans at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport who were slated to work at the SK plant without proper visas.

The immigration crackdown comes as SK Innovation remains embroiled in a legal battle over battery technologies that could threaten the massive construction project. The International Trade Commission is expected to rule next month on a dispute between SK and rival LG Chem over a patent for technology slated to be used at the plant. An SK spokesman said the commission’s ruling won’t be final and is subject to appeals.

The 2.4 million-square-foot plant, located next to Interstate 85 in Jackson County, could eventually employ up to 2,600 workers. Georgia gave SK one of the biggest incentive packages in state history to locate there, including $300 million in grants, tax breaks and free land.

Construction began last year and the plant will supply batteries for use in vehicles made by Volkswagen and Ford. It represents the largest economic development project in Georgia since Kia Motors opened its West Point plant in 2011.

The workers arrested on Wednesday will voluntarily leave the U.S. as soon as this week, according to YTN News, a Korean news outlet. The Consulate General for the Republic of Korea in Atlanta did not return a call seeking comment.

Despite the two rounds of worker arrests, SK spokesman Joe Guy Collier said the company still expects to complete construction on its original timeline. The first phase is projected to be completed at the end of this year with initial production starting next year. The second phase will be completed at the end of 2023.

The workers were employed by a construction firm, not by SK, Collier said. SK has only a few employees currently working at the construction site, primarily engineers. General contractors and subcontractors are responsible for ensuring workers have the correct visas.

After the May arrests, SK implemented a policy requiring all workers to present immigration documents when they come to work. “We feel like we’re going above and beyond to ensure every worker who enters that site is legally permitted to work in the U.S.,” Collier said.

Contractors, not the plant owner, are legally responsible for workers' visa status, said Charles Kuck, an Atlanta immigration lawyer. Nevertheless, he noted, Walmart and other companies have procedures to validate that vendors and suppliers hire legal workers.

A spokeswoman for Montgomery, Alabama-based SYS-CON LLC, one of two general contractors at the construction site, declined to comment. The other general contractor, Eastern Corp., did not respond to a request for comment.

SK’s permanent jobs will be filled by Georgians, many of whom will receive state-funded job training, said Pat Wilson, commissioner of the state Department of Economic Development. The state expects construction projects to comply with all employment and immigration laws, said a spokeswoman for Wilson.

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., raised concerns this summer about potential illegal workers at the SK site, which is located in his district. Collins, who is also running for U.S. Senate, sent a letter in August to federal authorities urging them to investigate.

“These arrests confirm what we suspected all along: for months, SK and their contractors have been engaged in an ongoing scheme to illegally employ Korean foreign nationals,” Collins said Thursday in an emailed statement.

It’s unclear why construction firms would hire Korean instead of American workers, unless the Koreans have special skills, Kuck said. Also, it’s easy to obtain needed documents for non-U.S. workers.

“There are H-2B visas available, so this was an unnecessary breaking of the law,” he said.

-- Staff writer Jeremy Redmon contributed to this article.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article didn’t specify where the 33 Koreans were arrested in May.

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