For months now, the 2016 U.S. primary season has been a crash-course in the nuances of racism and xenophobia. Last Thursday’s GOP debate did little to change that trend.
During the February 25 event, U.S. presidential candidate Marco Rubio accused Donald Trump of hiring undocumented workers. Trump, who has called for a fence to be built along the U.S.-Mexican border, claimed during the debate that he had single-handedly brought the immigration issue into the presidential contest. Rubio fired back, citing Trump’s hiring of undocumented Polish workers to build Trump Tower in New York City several decades ago.
A 1998 New York Times article details the horrors Polish immigrants, like Wojciech Kozak, experienced working for Mr. Trump, including laboring for excruciatingly long shifts for meager pay. As Kozak told the Times, he and his coworkers were “frightened illegal immigrants” who “did not know enough about our rights.” A lawsuit filed against Trump and his business partner in 1983 on behalf of the workers dragged on until 1999, and ultimately concluded, though apparently without the workers receiving any compensation.
Trump’s deeply anti-immigrant supporters, however, remain unswayed by these facts.
Why is this so? An underlying reason probably has something to do with the race of the workers involved. Today, Americans, by and large, do not associate undocumented laborers with white people, like the Polish immigrants who built Trump Towers. Instead, it is Latinos who bear the brunt of modern American xenophobia, and who have been the chief targets of the Republican war on immigrants.
Of course, this association has not always existed. During the nineteenth century and even well into the late twentieth century, Eastern European immigrants experienced extreme marginalization and ethnophobia in the United States. In Europe, those from Eastern European countries are still associated with poverty and deviance, and blamed for the loss of Western European jobs. In fact, several right-wing parties in Western Europe have directly targeted immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe in propaganda similar to the anti-immigrant sentiment displayed toward Latinos in the United States today.
For Trump’s base, however, race matters more than ethnicity. Throughout the course of the 2016 presidential election, Trump has repeatedly used this to his advantage. He has falsely accused Mexican immigrants of being rapists and drug dealers, and implied that they have brought crime to the United States.
Despite Trump’s aggressive stance against undocumented Latino immigrants, it is clear he has repeatedly hired and abused members of this vulnerable group, for his own financial benefit. In July 2015, the Washington Post reported that Trump had hired undocumented Latinos for the construction of his new D.C. hotel. While the story failed to gain much traction, it would be interesting to see how Trump enthusiasts would react if this became more widely known. Would they care as little about his hypocrisy then? If their support for his anti-Latino tirades is any indicator, it would seem doubtful they could look the other way, this time around.
Regardless of whether Trump’s supporters ever come to grips with their candidate’s true colors, the immigrants who have worked on his projects are well aware of his hypocrisy. David Montoya, a Salvadoran immigrant who spoke with the Post, has built a successful life in the United States and endured a great deal of hardship at the hands of people like Trump. To his credit, he told the Post he believes his story of hard work makes him more of an American than Trump could ever be.
As we tally up Donald Trump’s transgressions and lies, we should remember Mr. Montoya’s words and bring the debate back to the incredible contributions undocumented workers like him have made to this country. Whether Polish or Hispanic, it is on their backs that much of the United States, as well as Trump’s very own “empire,” has been built.