JEFFERSON, Ga. - Federal authorities arrested 13 Korean nationals who worked for a sprawling factory under construction in Jackson County, accusing them of violating immigration laws.
SK Battery America is a Korean-owned company that received $300 million in tax breaks and free land to locate its multi-billion-dollar factory in Georgia. The company has signed deals to manufacture batteries for electric cars and trucks. It’s due to open in 2022.
In May, Customs and Border Protection announced it had apprehended 33 Korean nationals trying to come through Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport with “fake employment letters” to work at the battery plant. They were turned around and sent back to South Korea.
The Georgia State Patrol said one of its troopers stopped a van for speeding Wednesday morning near the plant.
“The trooper had trouble communicating with the driver due to a language barrier,” emailed a GSP spokesperson. “The driver provided his passport and an identification card. Homeland Security Agents arrived on scene and interviewed all the occupants.”
GSP said 10 people were arrested at that stop and charged with “immigration violations.” The Korean Consulate said a total of 13 were taken into custody. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not return calls for comment.
SK Battery America's Jackson County plant already covers several football fields with another phase already underway. Eventually, the company plans to hire 2600 people to manufacture batteries for electric cars and trucks.
In August, the FOX 5 I-Team began investigating complaints from American workers that they were being passed over for basic construction jobs in favor of Koreans who weren’t legally allowed to work in the United States.
“I’m pretty sure if ICE ran in there they’d have a field day on a lot of people up there!” predicted Kimel Brantley, a former safety officer for two contractors at the job site.
According to one source familiar with the investigation, all 13 Koreans arrested this week have since been released from custody and ordered to leave the country by October 10. They’ve also been banned from returning to the US for 10 years.
Representative Doug Collins originally called for an ICE investigation after we began asking questions.
“These arrests confirm what we suspected all along," he said in a written statement. "For months, SK and their contractors have been engaged in an ongoing scheme to illegally employ Korean foreign nationals at their facility in Northeast Georgia."
But this is not the only new development in our investigation.
A worker at the SK Battery plant is taken away by ambulance Saturday. Eyewitnesses say he fell through a ceiling. The accident came days after other workers complained to OSHA and the FOX 5 I-Team about unsafe work conditions at the jobsite. (Viewer
The FOX 5 I-Team also reported on safety concerns at the plant. American workers complained to OSHA some of the Korean subcontractors don’t heed safety rules. Some even provided pictures of what they considered dangerous conditions.
On Saturday, just days after our story aired, an SK Battery subcontractor fell through a ceiling and had to be taken away by ambulance. No word on his condition.
According to eyewitnesses, OSHA arrived on the site this week.
In a statement, SK Battery said “we have… issued a strong warning to the sub-contractor and stressed to all other sub-contractors on site that safety first must be their guiding principle.”
The company also insisted that at least 1000 American workers are currently at the plant.
As for the recent ICE arrests, since the FOX 5 I-Team investigation aired all construction workers are now required to produce proof at the job site they can legally work in this country.
“If any contractor is in violation, SKBA will impose severe sanctions, including possible termination of the contractor,” wrote the company.
It’s unclear whether the 13 Korean workers taken away by ICE this week were still able to get through that checkpoint each day.