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5 questions about President Trump’s use of undocumented workers

An undocumented immigrant who was fired from his job in the kitchen at Trump National Golf Club Westchester stands for a portrait in Ossining, NY on January 24, 2018.
An undocumented immigrant who was fired from his job in the kitchen at Trump National Golf Club Westchester stands for a portrait in Ossining, NY on January 24, 2018. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

President Trump has built much of his presidency — and his 2020 reelection campaign — around a simple message: Illegal immigration is a national crisis. 

“Tolerance for illegal immigration is not compassionate,” Trump said in his State of the Union address this year. “It is cruel.”

But, in private, Trump’s company relied on the same kind of undocumented workers he was denouncing, according to the accounts of 48 current and former Trump workers interviewed by The Washington Post this year.

For years — including during Trump’s presidency — the Trump Organization employed undocumented workers as housekeepers, waiters, groundskeepers and stonemasons.

Undocumented workers at Trump's New York golf club speak out after being fired. (Video: Dalton Bennett, Jesse Mesner-Hage/The Washington Post, Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Using them brought a double advantage: Trump could reap the financial benefit of undocumented labor — the ability to pay his employees lower wages and fewer benefits — and the political benefit of attacking it.

In some cases, those workers’ jobs brought them very close to Trump and his family: They served Trump’s meals, cleaned his homes, set out his makeup and ironed his boxer shorts. On Wednesday, The Post told the story of Sandra Diaz and Victorina Morales, two former Trump Organization housekeepers who went public late last year.

Their story set off a cascade of changes for Trump’s company, which has denied that it knowingly hired undocumented immigrants. After the women came forward, the Trump Organization fired at least 20 undocumented workers and adopted the federal E-Verify system companywide to screen new hires.

The decision also brought painful consequences for the two women who spoke up: After they were featured in the New York Times last year, they lost jobs and friends. But they say they would do it again. “We are good people who are showing our faces,” Diaz said. “My responsibility was to tell the truth.”

The Post has spent the past year reporting on undocumented workers at Trump’s clubs. Here are five questions that have been answered:

1. How many Trump businesses employed undocumented workers — and for how long?

Undocumented immigrants worked for at least 11 Trump properties, according to workers interviewed by The Post. Some said they started working for Trump 17 years ago.

The properties include five Trump golf courses in New York and New Jersey that fired their undocumented workers after Diaz and Morales went public.

In all, the Trump Organization said it fired 19 workers at the courses.

At five more properties — two golf courses in Florida, plus others in Virginia and the Bronx, as well as the Trump Winery in Charlottesville — the company used a crew of immigrant stonemasons known informally as “The Flintstones” to build walls, buildings and even artificial waterfalls. Some of those stonemasons were undocumented, according to former workers.

“If you’re a good worker, papers don’t matter,” said Jorge Castro, an undocumented Ecuadoran immigrant who worked for the Trump-owned stonemasonry company from 2010 until April of this year.

The 11th property is Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla. An undocumented immigrant told The Post that he had worked as a banquet server there, but that he left after Trump became president.

Trump’s golf course employed undocumented workers — and then fired them amid showdown over border wall

At some of these properties, The Post found that undocumented immigrants had worked for Trump for more than a decade. In Bedminster, N.J., workers without legal status helped build the course itself, starting around 2002, former workers said.

In Westchester, N.Y., Gabriel Sedano, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, had worked at Trump’s club since 2005. He was among those fired in January, after Diaz and Morales went public.

“I started to cry,” Sedano told The Post. “I told them they needed to consider us. I had worked almost 15 years for them in this club, and I’d given the best of myself to this job.”

Trump’s history with illegal labor goes much further back: In 1980, the future president employed several hundred undocumented immigrants from Poland to demolish a building on the future site of Trump Tower in New York. Trump denied knowing that, but a judge later ruled that he “should have known.” Trump settled a lawsuit regarding the Polish workers in 1998, paying $1.38 million, according to news reports.

2. Did Trump or his company know that undocumented workers were being hired?

During the 2016 campaign, Trump suggested that companies that employed undocumented immigrants should face “a huge financial penalty” — or that it even be “beyond a financial penalty.”

His own company, Trump boasted, had strict procedures to avoid hiring undocumented workers.

“But I have — and I think, to me, it’s very important — E-Verify,” he continued. “So now I find out: Are they legal or not?”

E-Verify is a voluntary federal system that allows employers to quickly check the immigration status of new hires. But at the time, only a few of Trump’s properties were actually enrolled in E-Verify.

Fast-forward to this year: After journalists revealed that multiple Trump properties had employed undocumented immigrants for years, Trump said he wasn’t sure whether the Trump Organization still employed any such workers.

“Well, that I don’t know. Because I don’t run it,” Trump told reporters in July, when asked whether his company employed undocumented workers at the time. “But I would say this: Probably every club in the United States has that, because it seems to me, from what I understand, a way that people did business.”

Trump still owns his company, but he says he has passed day-to-day control to his two eldest sons. The Trump Organization has said that it had “very strict hiring practices” before this year, but that it was difficult to stop employees from submitting fake documents.

But many former Trump workers said that’s hard to believe. They said that dozens like them were working without legal status — an estimated 100 at Bedminster alone. They told The Post that they believed their managers knew.

“My whole town practically lived there,” one Costa Rican worker said of the Bedminster club.

In another flag to the management, a Bedminster police officer investigating a hit-and-run in 2011 arrested an employee of Trump’s club and determined that he was an undocumented immigrant working under a fake name. The officer told the club’s head of security that the employee “may be using a false name and government documentation.”

The worker was deported.

At Westchester, one former manager said that the workers were known to be undocumented — and that management used that as leverage against them. When Trump headquarters asked them to reduce overtime costs, the manager said, supervisors told undocumented workers to “clock out” and then continue working without pay.

“There was a conscious effort to pay less wages because they knew about the lack of documents,” said the former manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal company policy. “You know, where are they going to go?”

Trump’s company called these accounts “nonsense.”

“The Trump Organization has extensive policies and procedures in place to ensure compliance with all wage and hour laws,” Trump spokeswoman Kimberly Benza said earlier this year, after The Post sent a brief description of the employees’ accounts. “This story is total nonsense and nothing more than unsubstantiated allegations from illegal immigrants who unlawfully submitted fake identification in an effort to obtain employment.”

‘My whole town practically lived there’: From Costa Rica to New Jersey, a pipeline of illegal workers for Trump goes back years

3. What legal consequences has the Trump Organization faced for its use of undocumented labor?

Not many.

In New York, the state attorney general’s office has interviewed more than two dozen former undocumented workers at Trump’s Westchester County golf club, focusing on allegations of wage- and labor-law violations.

Two former undocumented workers from that club told The Post that they were told to work extra hours without pay. Others at the same club alleged that they were denied overtime pay for working 60-hour weeks. The New York attorney general’s office said last month that the inquiry was ongoing but declined to provide details.

In addition, investigators for the New Jersey attorney general and the FBI have gathered information from former workers at the Bedminster club, according to an attorney for some of the workers. But it is unclear whether those agencies are still looking into the club.

The New Jersey attorney general declined to comment, as did the FBI. 

In late April, Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) asked acting Homeland Security secretary Kevin McAleenan to assure that “the department won’t play favorites” by giving the Trump clubs special treatment.

McAleenan’s reply was general, not mentioning Trump or his clubs by name. But he seemed to indicate that the Trump Organization was not a target.

The department’s “efforts will remain targeted at the most significant violators,” he said. Because the Trump Organization is relatively small, it seemed unlikely to be on that list. McAleenan said he wanted to “ensure we have integrity in the entire process.”

4. What consequences have the workers faced?

After leaving the Trump Organization, many workers found it hard to find new jobs. Several are now subsisting on day labor or part-time work. Adela Garcia, who lost her job in January as a housekeeper at Trump’s Westchester club, found work cleaning houses two days a week for a quarter of the pay she earned at the Trump Organization.

“We have three children and that affected us a lot,” she said.

Several workers who spoke publicly about their time with Trump faced a backlash from other undocumented colleagues who feared that the attention might put them at greater risk for deportation. Some were warned by new bosses to stay quiet and not cause trouble.

For months, Trump’s former undocumented workers stayed in close touch, communicating by WhatsApp about their television appearances and developments in the investigations of their cases. They have drifted apart in recent months as they’ve heard little from authorities.

None of the former Trump Organization workers are known to have been deported.

Many who spoke publicly have found purpose in pushing for immigration reform that could one day give them residency permits, work visas or a path to citizenship.

“I miss having a fixed job, a stable place to work. But you have to keep moving forward,” said Margarita Cruz, a former housekeeper at Trump’s Westchester club. “More than anything, we want to lose our fear. To feel we can work safely. To feel we can live a real life.”

5. Would a wall have stopped the undocumented workers from coming to the United States?

Some of the Trump workers without legal status said they entered the country by crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Before, you could cross the border like you cross the street,” said Juan Quintero, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who worked at Trump’s Hudson Valley golf course as well as a private hunting lodge partly owned by Trump’s adult sons, Eric and Don Jr.

Trump has said the barrier he proposes would stop such migrants from crossing the border.

Critics of his idea point out that existing stretches of wall and fencing haven’t stopped tens of thousands of people from getting through each year and that there is no end to the ways people can get over, under, around or through such barriers.

Other workers arrived on flights with tourist visas and stayed.

In those cases, a wall wouldn’t matter.