Lou Dobbs, American Hypocrite
In a telephone interview, Jorge Garcia, a 24-year-old Guatemalan immigrant who worked for seven years at the same landscaping company, said that he and his brother had also regularly worked on Dobbs's property. The two brothers worked two and a half to three hours each week for more than three years on the upkeep of the lawns, gardens and trees at Dobbs's house, Garcia said. He was hired to do that work even though, he said, "I don't have papers." Neither did his brother.
Lou Dobbs regularmente arremetía contra los “empleadores de ilegales.” Sin embargo, el propio Dobbs utilizó mano de obra de indocumentados para que trabajaran en sus propiedades multimillonarias y que atendieran los caballos que le tiene a su hija Hillary. Lea este artículo en Español.
Undocumented workers are so thoroughly woven into the fabric of our economy that even two professional immigrant-bashers, Lou Dobbs and Meg Whitman, have found it difficult to avoid relying on their labor.
Originally from the town of Momostenango in Guatemala's department of Totonicapán, Jorge came to the United States looking for work seven years ago. His brother Miguel, now 27, followed him soon after. As Jorge explained, the two of them had family they needed to support back home, including Miguel's wife and three children.
But at his hourly wage of $9, Jorge said, he was "not able to save much money" after covering his rent and bills. Miguel was making only $8 an hour. "The pay is bad," Jorge said. "There are no benefits, there's no medical coverage—nothing." Yet the landscaping work was sometimes dangerous, he said, especially when workers were required to prune Dobbs's trees and taller bushes.
Jorge said that he'd come to America to earn better wages—"to live better." However, his experience working as a landscaper, on Dobbs's and other properties, was "the opposite" of that.
During one of Dobbs's many shows devoted to immigration, in April 2006, the host described $10 an hour as "a decent wage, not, in my opinion, an adequate wage, but a decent wage." He then turned to his viewers with a pointed question: "How much more would you be willing to pay each year for fruits and vegetables if it would improve working conditions and raise wages for farmworkers?"
At the time Dobbs said that, an undocumented Guatemalan worker laboring in his own yard, Miguel Garcia, was being paid only $8 an hour.
Responding to The Nation's request for comment from Lou Dobbs, Chad Wilkinson, producer of The Lou Dobbs Show, said by e-mail that "Lou will not be commenting for the piece." Dobbs's attorney, Robert Zeller, clarified by e-mail that Dobbs would only answer questions if posed on his live radio show. (The Nation agreed to appear on the show but only after publication of this article.)
I asked Mike Sedlak, the owner of Sedlak Landscaping, the contractor that maintains the grounds on Dobbs's West Palm Beach property, whether Dobbs has ever inquired about the status of his employees. Sedlak said only, "I don't feel comfortable talking about it," and quickly got off the phone.
I also asked Missy Clark, the owner of North Run Farm, the stable in Warren, Vermont, where the Dobbs Group horses are housed, whether Dobbs or his daughter had ever inquired about the immigration status of the workers caring for Hillary's horses. She said, "They're very well aware that the people taking care of the horses are 100 percent legal," and said she'd given the Dobbs family assurances to that effect. But she later described her difficulty obtaining work visas for many of her employees. "It was a big process and a total pain in the neck," she said. "I had been working on it for years."
According to Christine Biederman, a Dallas-based immigration lawyer hired by Clark to obtain visas for North Run's employees, a California law firm Clark had initially hired had failed to deliver on visas it promised its clients and had gone out of business. Biederman took over and finally filed the visa applications for Clark's workers in June 2009, including for workers caring for Dobbs Group horses. It took three months for these H-2B visa applications to be processed, Biederman said.
When asked whether the workers who look after Dobbs's horses had legal immigration status before then, Biederman declined to comment.
"Imprisoned in a Palace"
Immigration attorney Laurie Volk explained that immigrant workers in jobs designated "low-skilled" are caught in a bind because "there's a demand for their work, but there's no way for them to do it legally." "There's no visa categories—or there's limited visas—for unskilled labor," she said.
For undocumented workers who have been in the United States for more than a year without status, being apprehended by immigration authorities poses a risk of being deported and barred from re-entry for ten years. That risk was very real for many of the workers who labored on Dobbs's properties, since many of them were in the United States for several years without status. The risks of apprehension were particularly great for the stable workers, whose work caring for the Dobbs Group horses forced them to travel constantly—including to border areas closely monitored by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.
Salinas traveled back to see his three kids and wife in Mexico on four occasions, but to avoid being apprehended he had to travel by bus, an exceptionally long journey from Vermont. For his part, Gomez is so afraid he will not be able to return to the United States that he has not seen his mother and brothers at all since immigrating six years ago, at the age of 18.
To avoid the risk associated with driving while undocumented, most of the workers interviewed for this piece don't ever drive, which imposes upon their lives an extreme isolation, given that Dobbs's horses are stabled in rural Vermont. Workers relied on their manager to transport them once a week to buy groceries at a store a half-hour's drive away. As Gomez told me, "Here one can't leave." This arrangement left the stable workers feeling, as Esperanza put it, like they were "imprisoned in a palace."
Yet even such precautions as not driving and not traveling home are no guarantee of safety. On the morning of October 5, 2009, Miguel Garcia was arrested by undercover ICE agents while he was on his way to his work cleaning Miami office buildings. (After four years of landscaping at Dobbs's and other properties, he'd quit because of the low pay.) "He was waiting for the train—nothing more," his brother Jorge explained. "They brought him to the jail." After a week in immigration detention, Miguel was deported to Guatemala.
Dobbs has long championed such enforcement measures. Yet according to Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda, a UCLA professor and author of a recent Center for American Progress report, "Raising the Floor for American Workers," these measures "only serve to push undocumented workers further under the table, lowering their wages and the wages of native workers as well."
Commenting on this scapegoating of undocumented workers, Hinojosa-Ojeda remarked, "The irony is that the biggest users of services of the undocumented are affluent white people." In the case of Lou Dobbs, who made his name and his fortune lambasting "illegals" and their employers, the irony is breathtaking.