“All I do is work. I get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and I go to work. And I come back at 7 o’clock at night. That’s every day, except for Sunday. On Sundays I play baseball.”
What could possibly be more American than baseball and too much work? Except in this case, it is not the voice of an American, legally speaking, but a 29-year-old Mexican man named Bernabe who, for the past 12 years, has built a home in tiny Middletown, New York. He has done almost everything that the American government asks of a model citizen: He pays taxes, he doesn’t break the law, he works hard. But Bernabe is not a citizen; he’s one of the estimated 11 million people who came to the country illegally and whom Donald Trump says he will deport if the real-estate mogul and reality-TV star wins the presidential election.
“If he gets to be president,” says Bernabe, “probably he’ll send me back to Mexico. But I don’t know how you catch all the people. I don’t think the taxpayers here want to pay for that.”
He raises a good point. Setting aside questions about the morality of Trump’s deportation agenda for a moment, there are, of course, the practical issues. Among them: Undocumented immigrants are both the economic and cultural lifeblood of places like Middletown all over the country. Even if you could deport mass numbers of people—an expensive and legally challenging task by itself—doing so would erase years’ worth of slow, steady revitalization that immigrants have brought to America’s postmanufacturing towns. “You don’t have to look any farther than places like Dayton, Ohio, and Detroit, Michigan,” says Kamal Essaheb of the National Immigration Law Center. “Rust Belt cities, great American cities that have undergone economic depression—these are the places that immigrants are reviving. And these are the places that will suffer if mass deportations take place.”
When Bernabe left his family in Puebla, he was just 15 years old, traveling with one friend. They paid a coyote to lead them through the desert into Arizona. “People say to me, ‘Why did you come here illegally?’ I tell them, ‘OK, you love your family, right? I love my family.’ If you got your mom starving for food, you got to do everything for her. That’s what I’m going to do. If I die, I die.”
Bernabe originally migrated to Red Bank, New Jersey, to live with his father. But just weeks after he arrived, his dad had to rush back to Puebla because of a family emergency. Bernabe was suddenly a teenager on his own, with only a few English flashcards committed to memory. He was lonely and needed work. But he had a friend who lived in Middletown, so he figured he’d give that a try.
Fanning out from his base in Middletown, he was able to find the sort of insecure low-wage gigs that citizens in the region refused, but that he could use to start a life. First it was landscaping, then work in a warehouse and at a garbage company, where he missed one day in three years and was named employee of the month more than once. Bernabe knew that each time he headed off to work, he was taking a risk. “You learn to drive every day thinking you might not come back,” he says.
New York’s Hudson Valley region is home to both an economy and an electorate that well illustrate the political fault lines of 2016. Politicians in the region need to be able to talk about hunting rifles and wine pairings with equal dexterity. The more liberal constituents—those with a second home in the area, as well as those who have been priced out of New York City and have turned to the Hudson Valley as a rural hipster haven—often have a metropolitan sensibility. The more conservative constituents are represented by families who have been in the region for generations, surviving decades of economic downturn. The surging immigrant communities are caught between the two.
Much of the region sits inside the 19th Congressional District, which is hosting one of the year’s most closely watched races, as it is one of the few Democrats could flip: Republican Representative Chris Gibson announced in 2015 that he would not run for reelection, which leaves Zephyr Teachout and John Faso to fight for the seat. Teachout is the local iteration of Bernie Sanders—the former presidential candidate has been campaigning hard for her—while Faso is an establishment Republican. While Teachout is drumming up support among liberal residents, enthusiasm for Donald Trump and the Republican Party isn’t exactly flagging. In the GOP primary, Trump won some Hudson Valley counties with as much as 70 percent of the vote. Orange County, where Middletown sits, gave him his fourth-largest margin of victory in the state.
The 19th District accounts for the lion’s share of the Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains region. It’s an agricultural landscape: orchards across the rolling hills, dairy and poultry farms in the more mountainous reaches. Many towns and small cities have industry related to agriculture—cheese making, meat processing, food packaging. Other types of manufacturing used to thrive along the rail lines running up and down the river, but in towns throughout the region, that economy dried up in the 1960s. Middletown and other small cities felt it when nearby plants closed down—first a Ford plant in a neighboring New Jersey county, then IBM—and over the next two decades, the population shrank and factories rusted.
But by the time Bernabe arrived in 2004, Middletown’s trajectory had reversed. The population grew in the 1980s and ’90s due, in part, to immigrants arriving to fill the agricultural workforce—the low-paying, physically grueling nonunion jobs left behind by workers who had emptied out of the region in the ’60s and ’70s. In this regard, Middletown’s history illustrates a widely misunderstood dynamic of low-wage labor markets: “It’s only after the wages go down that new immigrants begin to take the jobs. It’s not that the new immigrants lower the wages; it’s the opposite relationship,” explains Joshua Freeman, a labor historian at City University of New York. “You see the same thing in Hudson Valley agriculture: No high-school kid from Poughkeepsie is being kept out of an apple-picking job because of illegal immigrants. They don’t want them!”
But the teenage Bernabe wanted any job available in the valley, and so he joined the migration to Middletown. By the 2000 census, a quarter of the people living there identified as Hispanic, and between 2000 and ’10 the Hispanic population grew by another 75 percent. Bernabe describes his neighborhood today as “almost all Mexicans.” The town’s population has climbed back from a nadir of 21,454 in 1980 to hit 28,086 in 2010.
“The vast majority of the agricultural workforce in the area is made up of immigrants,” says Emma Kreyche at the Worker Justice Center of New York. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that 65 percent of the agricultural workforce across the state is made up of undocumented immigrants.
Maggie Gray, who spent 10 years visiting New York farms while researching her book Labor and the Locavore, puts it this way: “What would it look like if all the undocumented workers in New York were deported? Most agriculture would just shut down.” For her book, Gray visited 28 farms; only one didn’t employ undocumented workers.
* * *
Those workers are, of course, incredibly vulnerable under the current system. Bernabe’s 1-year-old daughter Amaia lives with her mother, Dulce, in Liberty, a half-hour north of Middletown. Until last year, Dulce worked at Ideal Snacks, a food-processing plant that’s the largest employer in the county, with an estimated $36 million in sales in 2015. While Dulce was on maternity leave with Amaia, something changed at the plant. “They started to fire people,” she told me through an interpreter. “I started getting very nervous.” When she called her boss, he told her not to come back. Despite working there for four years, Dulce wasn’t given any explanation or compensation for the firing, which took effect immediately.
“We soon found out that this was because we didn’t have work visas,” Dulce says. “I don’t have one, and many of my coworkers don’t have one either—so we got fired. The only people that stayed were those who had work visas.” Roughly 200 people were laid off—about half of the company’s workforce.
Ideal Snacks was sold to Permira, a private-equity firm, in July 2015, and while the new CEO, Paul Nardone, says the company now uses E-Verify for all employees, he wouldn’t comment on the working conditions and hiring practices of Ideal Snacks before Permira acquired it. After the layoffs, however, several employees made charges of unsafe working conditions and unfair wages. “When I worked there,” Dulce says, “they paid us undocumented workers the very minimum wage, whereas they paid the legal workers a lot more.” The layoffs prompted an investigation by the New York State Department of Labor. Ideal Snacks, which had been receiving tax subsidies through the county’s Industrial Development Agency, was ordered to pay $102,000 for “vacation time and associated damages” to the laid-off workers.
But by that point, many of them had already left, chasing whatever work they could find. “The people who left went to Washington; others went to Ohio or Boston or other places,” Dulce says. “This is actually still happening—people are still leaving.”
The exodus offers a glimpse into the world that Trump would create. Since the mass layoff last summer, several small businesses in Liberty have struggled to stay afloat. Ines Rodriguez, who owns the Liberty Thrift and Consignment Store, saw her business drop sharply. It has yet to pick up. “Main Street is going to be dead,” she told the town’s newspaper.
“When I first got here,” Dulce recalls, “I heard someone say, ‘Wow, this is incredible… Liberty has life again!’ Before the Hispanics arrived, Liberty was empty—a ghost town. No one would be walking in the streets. I think if Trump won the election, the same thing would happen everywhere.”
Bernabe still has the dimples and short frame of his teenage years. His face is freshly shaven, and his clean white T-shirt is tucked into his jeans. Six years ago, he started hanging drywall and discovered that he had a knack for it. One day he heard his boss yell at another employee: “Start your own business if you’re tired of answering to a boss!” Bernabe took the advice.
His drywall outfit has been incorporated for two years now. He employs four workers. He lines up jobs throughout the state and region, but most of his work is in and around Middletown, the heart of Donald Trump country. It’s not uncommon for him to approach a home at the start of a job and see a Trump sign on the lawn, or a bumper sticker on a truck. When he approached a recent job and saw a series of Trump signs dotting the lawn, he hesitated. He told his crew that if the client gave them any trouble, they would walk away. “But the owner,” Bernabe adds, “he was a good guy. He gave me food and all that. I was waiting for him to look at me bad or tell me something, but he didn’t. Sometimes the people, they surprise you.”
Bernabe describes a disconnect between the politics expressed on the front lawns of the people for whom he works, and how those individuals treat him in business dealings. It’s as if those politics evaporate when people begin to actually interact and immediate needs—like, say, new drywall at an affordable rate—take precedence. “It was funny,” Bernabe says, describing the home of a Trump supporter that he recently noticed while driving through town: “All around, it was Mexicans doing the landscaping. And you know that all those people don’t have Social Security cards. I was thinking, ‘How is that? You should come out and ask each of them if they have a Social Security card—and if they don’t, you should throw them out, yes?’ No… you need them to do the work.”
Like agriculture, Bernabe’s line of work is filled with undocumented workers. “You don’t see white people doing drywall, only Mexicans. Maybe one white person, maybe the driver—and that’s because we don’t have license and we need someone with license. If Trump sends everybody back to Mexico, who’s going to work the jobs?”
Emma Kreyche at the Worker Justice Center echoes the point. “A large portion of the communities in these areas are immigrant communities who are in many ways keeping commerce alive—performing jobs that other people don’t want to do, starting businesses on the main streets, catering to their own communities and the broader public. If they leave, all of that would end.”
* * *
Not only would the economic cost of Trump’s deportation program be immeasurable in places like New York’s 19th District, but the program itself would almost certainly be illegal. Attempts at large-scale deportation have already failed on legal grounds in other parts of the country. Arizona Senate Bill 1070 is Exhibit A: The US Supreme Court struck down several provisions in the 2010 law, and just last month, as part of a settlement in a civil-rights suit, Arizona announced that police officers would no longer check a person’s immigration status during a routine stop. Illegal social experiments like the Arizona law are the only conceivable way to go about trying to find as many as 11 million undocumented people. “When you say, ‘We want to go out into American communities and find undocumented immigrants,’” notes Cecillia Wang, director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, “you necessarily rely on cops—police officers, sheriff’s deputies—to engage in racial profiling through things like traffic shops or immigration raids.”
Envisioning the implementation of Trump’s idea, Wang sees a nation of checkpoints primarily set up around the businesses and institutions that are perceived to serve Latinos—a storefront with a piñata in the window on Main Street in Liberty, an iglesia in Middletown. “I think you’d see massive due-process violations in the removal system,” Wang says. “And you would see massive Fourth Amendment and equal-protection violations in the process of trying to detect and arrest people to put them into the deportation pipeline.”
And then there’s the question of the government’s capacity to process millions of people once they’re located and detained. Wang describes the system as unsustainable in its current state. “As things stand right now, there’s such a dire lack of capacity in the immigration-court system,” she says. “If you decide as president, ‘I’m going to go after all the undocumented people in this country and jam them through the immigration-court system,’ there is just no practical way to do that without more drastically depriving people of their right to make their claims for staying in the United States. So I think we’ll see a massive breakdown in our system of justice and the deportation system.”
There is acknowledgment across the political spectrum that no practical way exists to deport 11 million people. The last serious attempt at immigration reform—a 2013 bill that passed in the Senate with bipartisan support, before dying in the House of Representatives—included a path to citizenship. “That plan recognized there are millions of people already here without lawful status who deserve to stay,” Wang says. But in 2016, even acknowledging that basic fact has proven anathema in the Republican Party.
* * *
After the ideal snacks layoffs, dulce managed to secure a job with a local cheesemaker and then worked as a nanny. She is also taking classes in English. “I’ve been trying to learn English for over four years,” she says. “I go to school whenever I’m free, but it has been impossible because I never get to practice.” Like Bernabe, Dulce came from Puebla and crossed the border on foot at the age of 15. “I was already pregnant with my first child. I went straight to the farm where my parents were already working.” She is now the mother of five children, and she struggles to give her kids what they need, practically and emotionally. “I used to work from 6 am to 7 pm or even to 11 at night. My boy said he didn’t love me because I left them alone all day.”
Not unlike a lot of modern American families, Bernabe and Dulce have decided not to spend their lives together, but they work closely to raise their child. “Amaia’s why I work every day,” says Bernabe. “I hope when I get old, I have money in the bank so she can go to school. I know it’s expensive, and I know I’m going to get old.”
Recently, Dulce had to turn to the state to get medical coverage for Amaia, a necessity that leaves her feeling guilty every day. She will carry this guilt, she says, until she reaches her goal: to pay back every cent she’s received in medical benefits for Amaia. “If I had this opportunity, I would work very hard and pay off my debt with my salary. If I could make up for it, I would. I just want to stay here, where my children are safe and I know they won’t starve.”
Her sense that turning to the social safety net represents a personal failure is an idea that the conservative movement has been promoting since long before Trump. Even so, Bernabe shares many of that movement’s basic political values. He doesn’t dismiss the fears and frustrations of his Trump-supporting customers; in fact, when you really get him going, he starts to sound like someone who might vote Republican if the party didn’t have Trump on its ticket. “People get me mad,” he says, “people on the streets with their signs: ‘Homeless.’ They’re, like, 22 years old—why they can’t find a job?” Bernabe is particularly critical of the children of immigrants, first-generation Americans who don’t have jobs. “Before, I speak no English, I have no license, and I find work. How do these people speak English, have a license, and they don’t have no work? I don’t get that.”
While we’re talking, there’s a loud picnic across the street from his house. The music swells and the smell from the barbecue pit comes in through the open window. “Basically, all the streets are Mexicans. So if you empty this whole thing,” he says, motioning out the window, “there would be no one here. You don’t see white people or black people around here, only Spanish people. All the houses would be empty. All the people who own houses here, they would have trouble. Who’s going to pay the rent?”
It’s a good question, not only for Middletown and Liberty, but also for places like Hazleton, Pennsylvania, and Peoria, Illinois—cities and towns that have undergone economic depression and are now seeing migrants and refugees help to revitalize the local economy. The endless influx of immigrants has always been the identifying characteristic of the American project: “The United States is a receiving country,” says the ACLU’s Wang. As for Bernabe and Dulce, they stand ready to enter whatever system will enable them to continue contributing to their communities and their local economies, this time with a lawful immigration status.