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Trump and immigration: tough talk masks a complex reality

Swimming upstream

Even before Trump, reform advocates like the Chamber were up against a rising tide of skepticism regarding reform.

Congress grew cold after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and conservative talk radio and TV programs began a drumbeat of attacks against legalizing immigrants; TV personalities such as Lou Dobbs spread outlandish claims about Mexican plots to “take over” the American Southwest. Ironically, Mexican President Vicente Fox — the most pro-U.S. Mexican president in modern times — was increasingly excoriated by Dobbs and others. As wars in Afghanistan and Iraq tarnished President Bush’s popularity, he lost his ability to muster GOP support for a reform he had pushed. An influx of Central Americans fleeing violent gangs also brought a backlash.

Immigrant advocates aren’t convinced that Trump’s pledges to get tough will result in a mass exodus of people, but they do think workers will feel pain far more than employers. Bruce Goldstein, president of the nonprofit Farmworker Justice in Washington, D.C, said, “I’m worried that the current undocumented workers will be pushed further into the margins of society where they will suffer more.”

Bill Hing, a veteran immigration attorney and professor at the University of San Francisco, said his phone is “ringing off the hook now” as clients seek “an educated guess” on what Trump might do. More workplace raids might occur to “make a splash,” Hing also predicted. But employers, especially agribusiness, he said, are sure to try to enlist GOP leaders like House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, of Bakersfield, California, to try to fend off what they view as disruptive enforcement.

“Americans,” Hing added, “forget that there is truth to the argument that undocumented immigrants do take jobs Americans don’t want to do.” The undocumented are also consumers; local economies would suffer if the population vanished suddenly.

Among Trump’s favorite campaign stump lines was his vow to build “a great and beautiful wall” that Mexico would be forced to pay for — a vow he’s waffled on at times. He also railed against Mexico for “stealing” American jobs because U.S. corporations have factories there.

Yet despite his “America first” rhetoric, Trump himself used Mexican and Asian factories to produce his clothing line. The Washington Post reported that construction workers on Trump’s new hotel in Washington, D.C., admitted just last year that they were undocumented. Trump denied hiring undocumented workers and said the company used E-Verify to conduct screening.

In Florida, The New York Times reported that nearly 300 U.S. citizens have applied since 2010 to work as cooks, housekeepers and wait staff at Trump’s luxury Mar-a-Lago Club — but that only 17 were hired. The U.S. Labor Department, which reviews whether a business has met requirements to try to hire Americans first, certified 685 H-2B guest worker visas for Mar-a-Lago between 2008 and 2015. CNN reported that over 15 years, Trump’s businesses have filed for more than 1,250 foreign workers for various positions. Trump seemed to prefer young, attractive Eastern European or South African people, former workers told CNN.

Trump batted away these findings during the campaign, claiming there were “very few qualified” workers during the “high season” in the Mar-a-Lago area — a claim disputed by services that match employees in the area. Some news reports found that the business did little to meet requirements to advertise for workers. Mar-a-Lago justified its requests for foreign workers by saying that not enough American applicants were willing to work split shifts or part time.

Trump began suggesting in the final days of his campaign he’d go after “criminal” undocumented people first, which is already an Obama administration policy. In a transition video he released to the public on Nov. 21, Trump announced that he plans to direct the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate “all abuses of visa programs that undercut the American worker”— exactly how some in Florida reportedly felt about Trump’s recruitment of European guest workers.

“The contradictions with him are enormous,” said Muzaffar Chishti, who researches migration and is the director of Migration Policy Institute’s office at the New York University School of Law. The Migration Policy Institute is a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.

When it comes to immigration and accountability, Chishti said, “employers have been able to shift the burden downstream for years now,” to subcontractors and workers. Based on Trump’s harsh but mercurial rhetoric, Chishti added, it’s hard to imagine how Trump’s vows to police practices he has reportedly engaged in will eventually play out.

Throughout history, Chishti noted, Americans have employed foreign-born workers, and turned against them in fits of xenophobia that include labeling newcomers as “criminal” or unable to assimilate.

 “America’s always been ambivalent about immigration,” he said, “for a nation of immigrants.”

Correction, 5:12 p.m., Dec. 21 2016: An earlier version of this story reported that the Southern Poverty Law Center had labeled NumbersUSA a hate group. The SPLC has criticized NumbersUSA as “nativist” and for ties to a founder who has expressed racially charged views. But the SPLC does not include the group on a specific list it calls “extremist” or “hate” groups.

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