An official with the U.S. State Department told The Greenville News this week the federal government is aware of an investigative report by CBS News that spotlights the illegal use of foreign labor to construct auto manufacturing plants in the United States.
CBS News tracked more than 200 Eastern Europeans doing construction work at auto plants in the United States, including BMW Manufacturing in Spartanburg, South Carolina, using B-1 and B-2 visas.
The investigative report appeared Aug. 1 on CBSN's On Assignment program, titled, "Made in America – How the U.S. auto industry was built with foreign labor."
Under U.S. visa statutes, foreign laborers are not allowed to enter the country on B-1 or B-2 visas to build or do construction work.
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"We are aware of the allegations raised in this media report. This issue was originally reported last year," a State Department official told The News in an email when asked whether the agency was actively investigating the claims.
The newspaper was provided the information from the State Department on background, asking that it be attributed only to an unidentified department official.
"The Department of State takes all allegations of fraud or misuse of visas seriously. If an individual or a company appears to be abusing the visa process, we will investigate it and take appropriate action, which can include revoking the visa. The Department routinely shares conclusions of investigations with officers adjudicating visa applications, in order to improve the quality of visa decisions and compliance with appropriate U.S. law," the State Department official said.
A BMW Manufacturing spokesman would not answer questions related to the report.
A spokesman referred to a statement that was sent to CBS News from BMW North America.
"BMW made clear to CBS News it takes seriously its obligations under U.S. immigration laws and all other applicable federal, state and local laws, and requires the same from its Suppliers. Further, BMW requires Suppliers to ensure that their subcontractors also comply with all applicable federal, state and local laws, ordinances, rules and regulations."
"As a matter of contract and as a matter of federal law, it is the responsibility of the Suppliers and their subcontractors working to perform the installation of their equipment at BMW Plant Spartanburg to ensure their employees are legally permitted to work in the United States," the statement says.
CBSN collected hundreds of photos and videos that workers posted on social media showing work IDs, payments and visas that allowed foreign workers entry into the United States.
A CBS correspondent also traveled to Croatia, where they met a former worker named Stjepan Papes, who said he worked for a Slovenian subcontractor called ISM Vuzem.
Papes showed CBS News ID cards that he said came from auto manufacturers BMW, Tesla and Mercedes. The Croatian told CBS that workers are coached to get past U.S. Customs and Immigration on a B-1 and B-2 visa.
The visas cost workers about $160 and are valid for 10 years.
All visa applications are determined in accordance with U.S. law, and in order to be issued a visa, applicants have to demonstrate they intend to abide by that visa's terms, a State Department official told The News.
A B-1 visa allows workers to install, service or repair commercial or industrial equipment or machinery purchased by a company outside the U.S., or train U.S. workers to perform the same services, the official said.
B-1 visas holders are not permitted, however, to perform building or construction work.
A B-2 visa only allows for tourism, vacation, a visit with friends or relatives, medical treatment and participation in social events or service organizations.
The B-2 visa also allows for participation by amateurs in musical, sports or similar events or contests (if not being paid for participating) or enrollment in a short recreational course of study, not for credit toward a degree, according to the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs.
"The majority of visa holders use their visa appropriately," the State Department official told The News. "If an individual or a company appears to be abusing the visa process, we will investigate it and take appropriate action, which can include revoking the visa.”
In South Carolina, CBS News found an apartment complex in Spartanburg, where the report said it appeared workers from Slovenia and Croatia were being housed to work at BMW.
The report did not identify the complex by name.
At the apartment, the report said correspondents observed people gathered in the parking lot at 6:30 a.m. A van picked up the workers and took them to the BMW plant, where they stayed for 10 hours, the report said.
Carlos Phillips, president and CEO of the Greenville Chamber of Commerce, sent an email to chamber board of directors and staff on Aug. 1 referring to BMW's statement on the matter.
"The Chamber is thankful for BMW’s presence in the Upstate and their many contributions and material impact on our economy," Phillips' email read.
In June, BMW executives and South Carolina elected officials celebrated 25 years since BMW first announced in 1992 the automaker would build its first facility outside of Germany.
The Spartanburg plant, located off of Interstate 85, is currently the sole producer of the X3, X4, X5 and X6 models, as well as the M models and hybrids. A new X7 will be produced at the plant by late 2019.
BMW intends to invest $600 million and add another 1,000 jobs in the next four years at the plant, bringing the total workforce to more than 10,000 employees.
South Carolina' Secretary of Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt, who headed BMW Manufacturing's public affairs department for nearly 20 years, said in a statement to the newspaper compliance with all federal immigration laws and regulations is of the utmost importance.
"Because of my experience in the automotive manufacturing industry, I know that OEMs (original equipment manufacturer) look to subcontractors to hire workers to install much of their highly technical and specialized equipment," he said. "That said, I have faith that each of our OEMs will cooperate and comply with any enforcement agency regarding its workforce."
When automakers such as BMW expand their plants, a contractor is hired to build parts of the plant. That contractor will then subcontract smaller companies to build parts of the plant, and some of those companies will hire labor from Eastern Europe, the CBS News report said.
The report also said foreign workers were being used at the new Volvo plant in Berkeley County, off Interstate 26 near Ridgeville, and at the Mercedes plant in Alabama.
Volvo provided a statement to The News.
"Volvo contractually requires contractors and suppliers to fully comply with all applicable laws and our Code of Conduct, including U.S. immigration laws, human rights, a safe and healthy work environment, and working hours and compensation. We periodically ask our contractors to confirm in writing that they are in compliance. Any violations are promptly addressed, including termination of business relationship and removal from the site."
The statement added Volvo estimates the plant will create at least 2,000 American jobs in the next decade. A majority of the workers will be residents of the surrounding South Carolina communities, the statement says.