Last week, when I read the story about Donald Trump’s undocumented housekeeper, I was filled with rage and sadness. Rage because it was yet another example of the president doing something he’d campaigned against; sadness because many politicians demonize immigrants to win votes, while relying on their labor for profit.
During her five years as a housekeeper, Victorina Morales washed the president’s clothes, ironed his underwear, and cleaned his villa at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. She was even awarded a certificate from the White House Communications Agency in recognition of her performance. But throughout this entire time, she lacked the official papers necessary for her employment.
In an interview, Morales told The New York Times that a supervisor had helped her procure fake documents. She said she knew the risks of going public with this, but was moved to speak out because of the derogatory remarks that Trump regularly makes about immigrants, which—combined with comments from one of her managers—made her work life unendurable. “We are tired of the abuse, the insults, the way he talks about us when he knows that we are here helping him make money,” she said.
It might seem surprising that someone in a position as vulnerable as Morales’s would dare to tell the truth about the most powerful man in the world. After all, it’s not just a job or deportation that this brave woman is risking: In her native Guatemala, her attorney told The Washington Post, her family received threats, and her father-in-law was hacked to death. When you have little money and few prospects, though, the one thing you can always hold on to is your dignity—and Morales had clearly reached her breaking point.
Trump is by no means unique in publicly vilifying undocumented immigrants while privately profiting from their work. The family of Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, who represents California’s San Joaquin Valley, quietly moved their dairy farm to Sibley, Iowa, where it reportedly employs undocumented workers. Both Nunes and the congressman who represents Sibley—that would be the openly racist Steve King—have supported Trump’s draconian immigration policies. A year before that, Andrew Puzder, a fast-food executive whose nomination as Trump’s secretary of labor was being scrutinized for labor violations, found himself under criticism for employing an undocumented housekeeper. Puzder claimed that he was unaware she was undocumented, and said he’d paid back taxes for that worker to the IRS—after he was nominated.
Nor is the hypocrisy on immigration restricted to Republicans. Remember Nannygate? In 1993, two of Bill Clinton’s nominees for US attorney general, Zoë Baird and Kimba Wood, had to withdraw because they had employed undocumented domestic workers. The story of Donald Trump and Victorina Morales, then, is emblematic of a much larger dynamic in the United States: We have a system that uses cheap, undocumented labor to deliver goods or services to consumers and vast profit to employers.
No American today can claim to be unaffected by undocumented immigration. The meatpacking industry relies on such workers, as does the service industry. Nearly half of the field workers on US farms are undocumented—and that’s a low estimate. Fifteen percent of construction workers are unauthorized. If you’ve ever eaten a hamburger, snacked on almonds, or stayed at a hotel, chances are you’ve used undocumented labor.
Unauthorized workers are frequently portrayed as freeloaders who come here to “steal” jobs. But many immigrants do pay taxes on their income. The IRS issues individual-taxpayer identification numbers to people who don’t have Social Security numbers, enabling them to file returns. In that respect, Victorina Morales has done something that her employer, the president of the United States, didn’t do: She paid her taxes.
Nevertheless, Trump has looked for new ways to punish and abuse undocumented immigrants: separating babies and children from their parents at the border, diverting money from scientific research to fund detention camps, and sending thousands of troops to the southern border to stop a “migrant caravan” that was hundreds of miles away.
In a transparent effort to scare voters ahead of the midterm elections, he also released a Willie Horton–style ad about an undocumented immigrant named Luis Bracamontes. That strategy doesn’t seem to have worked: The Republicans suffered losses in Congress in November. Still, white voters’ views on immigration have been shown to be a strong predictor of their electoral choices, so Trump will probably deploy more of his hateful rhetoric ahead of the 2020 elections.
Since Morales’s revelations, two more undocumented workers at Trump’s club have spoken out, confirming that management knew about their status when they were hired. In each case, the women have been attacked as unreliable narrators of their own stories. In a statement to the press, the Trump Organization said that it had “tens of thousands of employees across our properties and…very strict hiring practices. If an employee submitted false documentation in an attempt to circumvent the law, they will be terminated immediately.”
In a few days or weeks, Victorina Morales’s story will disappear from the headlines, but the legal and moral issues that contributed to it will not. Undocumented immigrants help the elite make money, only to be used and abused by that same elite to win elections. We must do better. We must demand comprehensive immigration reform that provides a path to legalization, punishes labor abuses, and protects undocumented workers.