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.