DALLAS—It took three years in court for Alex and Claudia Golinelli to get back the $1,100 — an entire month's wages for the couple — they were owed by an employer who refused to pay them for their labor.
It is a predatory page taken right of the playbook of Donald Trump—who has made a fortune off the backs of cheap labor that is sometimes made even cheaper because he has refused to pay.
The difference between the Golinellis and the numerous contractors Trump refused to pay is that they’re undocumented workers.
Much more than $1,100 is at stake now that the rip-off artist is the president-elect of the United States. If he gets his way, it won’t be wages he takes this time but their way of life and their families by kicking them out of the country.
The Golinellis were among more than a dozen men and women who gathered in a small, nondescript building next to a used furniture store in south Dallas to watch on Univision as election results came in on Tuesday night. The building belongs to the Workers Defense Project, which helps undocumented workers like the Golinellis retrieve lost or stolen wages.
“It’s really sad to see families separated,” said Mario Ontiveros, an undocumented worker, on Tuesday night. “I’ve seen it over the years, but seeing it happen en masse would be catastrophic.”
If Trump gets his way, the catastrophe may be imminent.
Just after 8 p.m., a disappointed murmur came from the room as anchors announced that Trump had just taken Texas.
“He will start to spread his hate,” Alex said of Trump toward the end of our conversation. “He is a really dangerous man.”
Claudia, wearing a navy T-shirt with the Pledge of Allegiance written on it, said she could not bear to think of going back to El Salvador with or without her husband. She did most of the talking on Tuesday night. Alex, with long sideburns and a cellphone in each pocket of his khaki work shirt, sat solemnly by, wringing his hands as the discussion turned to Trump.
“Slowly, he’s going to start making harsher laws, and it’s going to be like the anti-black laws before the civil rights movement,” he said.
One of the couple’s children was born in the United States; the other came here at a young age.
“It’s all they know,” Claudia said.
Alex and Claudia—who both have engineering degrees from their native El Salvador—were working as electricians at a grocery store in Reno, Nevada, when their troubles began in 2013. First came the reduced wages, for no discernible reason, then their employer cut off all payments.
Owed the $1,100 monthly salary the couple shared, they were told by their employer to bring tools and materials they had been loaned and they would be paid. When they arrived, the police were there.
“We were so scared,” Claudia said.
The employer accused the couple of stealing the tools and materials they had returned. When other workers came to their defense, the police decided not to arrest or charge anyone—including the employer who had levied the false accusation, the couple said.
The son of an Italian father and a El Salvadoran mother, Alex left the country in 2005. First came a land dispute with a neighbor, then came threats from a “mafia” group, Alex said. When they threatened his mother with death, she left for Germany. Eventually he came to the U.S. to find work and to find Claudia, who had come here the previous year.
It took three years, but the Golinellis eventually won their court case with the help of the Workers Defense Project. The Department of Labor ruled in their favor in March and is currently monitoring their former employer’s finances in order to get the couple the $1,100 they are owed.
Undocumented workers have been hurting for years. With few rights, the immigrant men and women who pick our produce, build our apartments, work our mills and factories, and provide the silent and unseen backbone of labor that keeps our economy going are often the victims of predatory business owners who exploit them for work and refuse or delay payment for their services.
Trump is one such proven predator.
Over the years Trump has stiffed the Polish immigrants who built his garish Midtown Manhattan tower and refused to pay hundreds of people and businesses who worked on his properties across the country.
If Trump’s excuse is anything like the one he used when asked in a debate why he allegedly hadn’t paid taxes for 18 years, our new leader would likely say such decisions to screw over the workers he purports to represent makes him smart.
If Trump does what he has been saying he’ll do for the last year and a half, a wall will be built to prevent friends and loved ones from going back and forth across the border, and millions will be deported, leaving their American citizen children to fend for themselves in the only country they’ve ever known.
Ontiveros, a 55-year-old from Mexico, is one of those immigrants. He, too, fears what will happen to him and his family in a Trump presidency. Ontiveros was remodeling a Lane Bryant store in Texas four years ago when he found out how some in this country treat undocumented workers.
When his two weeks’ worth of work was done, his employer simply didn’t pay him the $1,200 he was owed. Ontiveros was shocked.
“I’ve always fought against injustice,” Ontiveros said. “I’ve always worked different jobs and tried to help people.”
Along with his wife, Lourdes, Ontiveros continues that work with the Workers Defense Project, quietly telling workers at construction sites that the nonprofit can help them.
“That they have rights,” he said.
The group’s two offices in Austin and Dallas have retrieved more than $229,000 in lost or stolen wages so far this year, Garza said. It is funded through grants and donations; college students often volunteer with the organization. When employers don’t pay up, members of the group picket, drawing public attention to a predatory business owner who has stiffed workers.
Ontiveros won his case, but by the time a judge ruled in his favor his former employer had disappeared, he said. That’s often the case, according to DJ Garza, a community organizer with the group. Sometimes it’s easier for U.S. citizens stiffing immigrants to escape justice than it is for the workers to retrieve the money they are owed.
Trump should know something about that. When his businesses fail he simply writes them off—as he did in 1995 when he claimed a nearly $900 million loss, resulting in an alleged lack of tax payments for the next 18 years. And when he claims work doesn’t meet his golden demands, he simply skates on the bill. When his casinos and other projects fail, he leaves investors and workers clutching at empty pockets, staring helplessly at unpaid bills.
Then he retreats to his tower and tells himself that he is a big man.
He is not alone in this misguided mind-set. There are many like him across the country, and workers like Ontiveros, Alex Golinelli, and millions of others are their victims.
By Wednesday morning, Alex’s muted concern over a Trump presidency had turned into outright dismay.
“I feel very disappointed and worried for me and the Hispanic immigrant community,” he told The Daily Beast through an interpreter.
“But we have to organize and fight against this neo-Nazi Trump and the Republican Congress so that they do not comply with what was promised by the Trump campaign.”