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Labor of undocumented immigrants is the motor of America

CHICAGO — In my mind, the defining moment of Donald Trump’s presidency happened well before he clinched the White House.

It was in January 2016. He showed his true colors when he said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s, like, incredible.”

Those of us who took him seriously and literally at the outset shuddered. We knew that such bluster could only come from someone who understood that the same people who would accept the recklessness of his comments would also accept the carelessness of his actions.

That’s why there’s been no outrage from Trump’s base about reports that his organization had hired immigrants who are unauthorized to live or work in the United States.

Trump’s company has fired at least 18 undocumented workers at five golf courses in New York and New Jersey in the past two months, according to The Washington Post.

The story that Trump had hired illegal workers in the first place was broken by The New York Times, which described the ongoing display of hypocrisy as “an embarrassment for the Trump Organization, coming to light as Mr. Trump has railed against illegal immigration, blamed undocumented immigrants for crime and pledged to build a wall along the Mexican border to keep more people from entering the country unlawfully.”

Not true. In no way has the Trump Organization shown anything close to embarrassment over its two-faced business practices.

As a matter of fact, some of the Trump properties that were exposed have defended their actions by blaming the employees for presenting fake documents, even though some of the employees claimed that their supervisors not only knew about their immigration status, but helped them acquire false papers.

The sad truth is that these types of dysfunctional employer-employee relationships are common. The powerful employers use labor as though it is not only cheap, but disposable. That’s because there are so many people waiting to take up the slack after yet another worker has been used up and thrown away.

“Before the 1980s, there were no laws about hiring (legal or unauthorized) immigrants; it was only after the (Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986) amnesty that employers had limits on who they could hire,” said Muzaffar Chishti, a lawyer and the director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at the New York University School of Law. “But everyone knew that there was a loophole big enough to drive a truck through: Congress could only sanction employers if they knowingly hired undocumented immigrants. So as long as the employee presents papers and the employer checks them to see if they look facially valid, then it’s fine, because the employer will have deniability. It’s a gross violation (of the law), with paper compliance.”

Chishti said the farce is a two-way street because immigrants who want to work – even at the risk of being underpaid, put in danger or otherwise exploited – accept the terms of this devil’s bargain.

No one – not even immigrant advocacy organizations – is keen to put teeth into the law. Such organizations have long complained that tools such as the federal E-Verify system run on flawed information that could misidentify legal workers. Ultimately, the detente keeps about 7 million of the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. gainfully employed, according to Chishti.

Still, the law against employers hiring undocumented workers is really a sanction against the workers because when the heat is on it’s the immigrant workers whose lives are upended.

“But if the businesses are fined a couple of thousand dollars for hiring undocumented workers, that amounts to a slap on the wrist … it’s practically figured in to the cost of doing business,” Chishti said.

But the hiring of unauthorized workers happens every day in the plants where our meat and poultry are processed, in the factories that make our cheap off-the-rack clothing and in the millions of homes where immigrant laborers toil behind closed doors to care for children, the elderly and the infirm.

Perhaps we have met the enemy of reforming employment-related immigration laws – and it is us.

 

 

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