Since taking office, Donald Trump has revoked the legal status of roughly 1 million longtime U.S. residents, used the mass psychological torture of children as a means of deterring asylum seekers, overseen the deportation of U.S. Army veterans, and encouraged the American military to use lethal force against unruly migrants at our southern border.
Through it all, the president has insisted that his “tough” immigration agenda is not motivated by hatred of “illegals” — but only love for the American worker.
The first sentence on the Trump campaign’s “Immigration” web page in 2016 was a promise to “prioritize the jobs, wages and security of the American people.” The second, a vow to “establish new immigration controls to boost wages and to ensure that open jobs are offered to American workers first.” To accomplish these goals, the mogul pledged to crack down on employers who exploit illicit labor, so as to “turn off the jobs and benefits magnet” that draws undocumented workers across the border.
The president reiterated this economic argument against illegal immigration in his most recent State of the Union address, arguing that “working class Americans are left to pay the price for mass illegal migration” in the form of “reduced jobs” and “lower wages.”
And yet, even as his administration found creative new ways to terrorize and immiserate undocumented workers, it has done little to systematically deter corporations from hiring them. In fact, the Trump family did not even cease employing undocumented laborers at its own company until this January, when negative press forced the Trump Organization to adopt E-Verify — a system that allows employers to confirm the legal status of job applicants.
This belated gesture did not augur any broader policy change. Last week, the president unveiled his new vision for immigration reform — and a call for all employers to adopt (and rigorously enforce) E-Verify was conspicuously absent. In an interview with Fox News that aired Sunday night, Trump explained the rationale behind that omission:
FOX NEW’S STEVE HILTON: One thing that people have speculated about was that it might include E-Verify. Is that going to be in the —
TRUMP: So E-Verify is going to be possibly a part of it. The one problem is E-Verify is so tough that in some cases, like farmers, they’re not — they’re not equipped for E-Verify. I mean I’d say that’s against Republicans. A lot of the Republicans say you go through an E-Verify. I used it when I built the hotel down the road on Pennsylvania Avenue. I use a very strong E-Verify system. And we would go through 28 people — 29, 30 people before we found one that qualified. [Emphasis mine.]
Trump’s argument here is not that E-Verify is easily subverted or prone to error. Rather, in the president’s view, the problem with E-Verify is that it works: When he built his D.C. hotel, his company struggled to find legal U.S. residents who were willing to do the work (at the wages that the Trump Organization was willing to pay). And Trump believes that agribusiness struggles with the same issue. Which is to say: The president’s complaint with E-Verify is ostensibly that it might force employers to pay more for “low-skill” labor, since legal U.S. residents aren’t quite as exploitable as workers who lack basic political and labor rights.
Now, Trump’s opposition to E-Verify is ultimately a good thing. So long as millions of law-abiding, longtime U.S. residents lack legal status, denying undocumented people the ability to feed their families through gainful employment is a monstrous proposition. But the president’s remarks nevertheless constitute an admission that he has been lying about the motivations behind his “hawkish” border policies.
Simply put, an immigration agenda that allows companies to hire undocumented workers — but makes such workers as vulnerable and disempowered as possible — is an agenda that maximizes the incentive for employers to hire undocumented laborers over native-born Americans. After all, an undocumented worker who is too afraid of ICE to report workplace safety violations or wage theft can be exploited even more ruthlessly than one who is not. And Trump has given undocumented workers good reason to harbor such fears: In California, ICE agents have allegedly made a practice of arresting undocumented workers at labor dispute proceedings, after recieving tips from their aggrieved employers.
Thus, the president has found a way to reconcile the GOP donor class’s taste for powerless laborers with his base’s raging xenophobia: Corporate America can use undocumented immigrants as farm equipment, so long as the Trumpen proletariat can still use them as punching bags. Let the immigrants undercut native-born wages, so long as their ritual abuse at the hands of the state reaffirms native-born (white) supremacy. The economic anxiety is a fig leaf; the cruelty is the point.