In November 2007, the Sheraton Bal Harbour, one of the great hotels from Miami's past, was demolished. In its place comes the promise of a grander vision for South Florida's skyline, the St. Regis Resort, a trio of oceanside glass towers built by developer Jorge Perez.
Construction at the St Regis is expected to continue for another two years, employing hundreds of construction workers at a time when these types of jobs are scarce. But while the project may be a boon to some, one group feeling left out is American sheet metal workers.
In a move that is angering local workers as well as members of Congress, one company received permission from both the state of Florida and the U.S. Department of Labor to bring workers in from Mexico to install the air conditioning and heating ducts - even though there are more than a thousand unemployed sheet metal workers right here in South Florida.
"This is really a terrible situation what's going on," said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, whose congressional district includes the St. Regis site. "How can you bring folks from another country - no diss on Mexico - to do this construction project when you have so many folks here who could use the work?"
CBS4 News wondered that as well.
The company doing the sheet metal work is CYVSA International, one of the largest construction firms in Mexico, and they applied for the right to bring in foreign workers under an immigration provision most Americans know very little about -- the H2-B Visa program.
H2B visas are only supposed to be issued for seasonal work and only when there are no American workers available. Both the State of Florida and the U.S. Department of Labor certified there were no Americans available, even though they claimed to try and recruit the workers during a ten day period.
But what the State of Florida and federal government claimed they couldn't do in ten days, the CBS4 I-Team accomplished in less than 72 hours.
We brought together more than 100 unemployed sheet metal workers for a town hall style meeting. Most have been out of work for at least four months and many say they are close to losing their homes and their health insurance.
"You ask us how we feel," began Phil Morales. "Well I'm damn angry that these people who we elect can turn their back on us for greed or whatever reason, and leave us in the conditions we're in. So you ask us how we feel, well, most of us are just damn angry about it. That's all I want to say."
Anger gave way to tears when it became clear the toll being felt by families.
Sixteen-year-old Cindy Duenas talked about seeing her father, a sheet metal worker who has been out of work nearly six months, struggle to keep his family together.
"You don't understand the feeling when you go into your house and you see your dad, going through the bills and he doesn't know what to do," she said breaking down in tears, as her father tried to comfort her.
"I understand all of you guys are qualified," she continued, addressing the men in the room "All of you guys have the ability to be working right now to be providing to your families, to be given that money, but you can't just because they gave it to someone else. That's not right. This country, it should help out the people that are here living, because this situation is incredibly devastating for everybody, for their family, for their children."
As she spoke, others in the crowd held back tears.
"This room is filled up with a lot of qualified people who really want to work," added Rolland White. "They aren't happy collecting unemployment checks but the point I haven't heard brought up tonight is, I would think the American taxpayer, who is really paying for the unemployment, would have a little anger about this themselves. The money for the unemployment and all the benefits has to be paid for by somebody and that's the taxpayer."
In an email to the CBS4 I-Team, the president of CYVSA acknowledged that his company has brought workers in from Mexico. And although his company was certified to bring the workers in under H2B visas, he denied actually using those visas. He refused to say what visa program the company was using.
"There is a team at the St. Regis project of key individuals who have worked on our international projects for a number of years," CYVSA President Sergio Armella wrote. "In addition we have hired and continue to hire qualified workers from the local labor pool."
Robert O'Brien, as well as others in the crowd, said they tried to get hired by CYVSA without any luck. "I sent out a resume certified mail as well and never received any info," he said.
CYVSA refused to say how many foreign workers were brought in for the project.
The foreign workers are being housed at an apartment complex in Surfside. CBS4 News contacted the workers there, and based on those interviews, as well as interviews with others at the job site, it appears the Mexican workers are being paid less than half what the American workers were being making
CYVSA refused to provide any information as to what the foreign workers were being paid.
"The people high up aren't watching our backs and ensuring that we stayed employed..." O'Brien said. "It's one thing if everyone in this room was working and they couldn't find men to occupy that job that they need to bring in people, but its a whole different deal when you've got this many people sitting in the room out of work."