Donald Trump’s War on the Undocumented Women Who Make New York Great
Not far from the tower that undocumented laborers built and Trump named for himself, workers without papers stand outside to wait for jobs Americans won’t do.
A gray and chilly dawn was breaking on our new president’s hometown as the first of the women day laborers arrived at the cement triangle in Brooklyn known as “La Parada,” which translates to “The Stop.”
As undocumented domestic workers have done here every workday morning for a quarter century or more, the woman stood facing the street with her back to the low railing that runs above the sunken expressway behind them.
Other women soon joined her and they all stood with the hope that somebody in need of housekeeping would hire them for a few hours to do work that no Americans appear to be willing to perform at minimal wages. Any American who was interested could have simply joined them.
The first arrival said that her name is Maria and that she is from Ecuador and that she has been coming to La Parada for 10 years. She was asked what she earned and she answered with a question.
“What you pay?”
Two years ago, a man named Samuel Just hired several of the women with the promise of $12 a day. He failed to pay them anything at all after pushing them to work as many as 27 straight hours. Word reached the activist Workers Justice Project, which notified the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office.
Just, then 21, was arrested for labor law violations and for perpetrating a scheme to defraud. He pled guilty and was ordered to pay the women $15,000 in lost wages and to undergo 200 hours of community service. His assigned task was to clean the Bronx courthouse, with special attention to the toilets.
But it was hard enough for the Workers Justice Project to gain the trust of the victimized women without them fearing that the authorities might move to deport them. Fear of ending up deported despite being on the right side of the law in an encounter with the police can make immigrants easy targets not just for abusive employers, but for criminals of every sort.
Because New York is New York, our new president’s hometown remains a sanctuary city despite Trump’s threats on Wednesday to cut federal funding for any municipality that defies his immigration edicts. Deportation has generally not been an immediate worry for the upstanding undocumented workers who gather each morning at day labor spots scattered across the five boroughs. The great majority of the laborers are men and they generally do construction work at low wages, too often in hazardous conditions.
The women assemble at two major locations, a corner in the fading garment district of Manhattan and La Parada in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, where Maria stood early Thursday morning with a dignified air that made her seem like Lady Liberty’s cousin, Lady Labor. Her glossy black hair had not a trace of gray and was brushed straight back. She wore a long black overcoat, a bright red top with matching pants and dark brown boots that appeared to be chosen for warmth as much as look. She had earphones plugged into a smart phone and she nodded almost imperceptibly to the music as she continued her vigil in hope of earning an honest buck.
Just as a first few drops of rain began to fall, a woman dressed more for office work than for house cleaning approached and spoke briefly with Maria. The two walked off together, Maria doubly rewarded with the prospect of work and escape from what was becoming a downpour.
A dozen women remained, hunched in the cold wet. Two who stood apart from the others were conversing in Polish, the same language spoken by a large band of undocumented laborers who repeatedly trooped en masse within three blocks of this spot during the 11-day transit strike back in April of 1980.
The 200 members of what some called “The Polish Brigade” had been working 12 hour shifts, seven days a week with no overtime and at less than half the standard union wage since January of that year, demolishing the department store that stood at the future site of Trump Tower. The time pressure had intensified, as construction of the new building had to begin by a certain date for Donald Trump to qualify for a tax abatement his father had arranged along with the necessary zoning variances through connections with the Brooklyn Democratic machine and ultimately the mob.
So, when the transit workers struck on April Fool’s Day, the Polish Brigade was told it had to keep working. Its members got there on foot, starting in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn where most of them resided, then crossing the Williamsburg Bridge into Manhattan and continuing up to the demolition site. Some chose to sleep amidst the dirt and din at the end of their shift, but most made the long trek home. The shift change on the evening of the ninth day of the strike came just as a storm swept in, dumping nearly three and a half inches of rain on the city in three hours.
Despite demonstrating such dedication to the job, the workers were not being paid. A number of them would later testify that they personally approached Trump about the unpaid wages while he made what they described as multiple visits to the site.
As was reported by The Daily Beast in 2015, Trump testified under oath in an ensuing civil suit that he had never actually ventured onto the site.
“I tend not to walk into buildings under demolition,” Trump said. “You have to be very brave to be in a building under demolition. I’m not sure I’m that brave.”
He added that he had no need to visit the site because “You can see it from a block away.”
He further testified that in any event he could not remember ever speaking to any of the workers or even being aware there were Polish workers on the site.
“When did you learn Polish workers were on the job?” he was asked.
“Probably sometime after the demolition,” Trump replied.
“Did it ever occur to you that they were illegal?”
“It was never proven to me that they were illegal.”
Trump maintained that hiring and paying the workers had been the concern of the contractor, not him. Manhattan federal Judge Charles Stewart found otherwise, ruling that Trump and the contractor had been party to a “conspiracy.” Stewart further found that Trump’s day-to-day man on the job site “was involved in every aspect of the demolition job.”
“He knew the Polish workers were working ‘off the books,’ that they were doing demolition work, that they were non-union, that they were paid substandard wages with no overtime pay, and that they were paid irregularly if at all,” the judge found.
The judge further noted, “They were undocumented and worked ‘off the books.’ No records were kept, no Social Security or other taxes were withheld.”
A number of workers would testify that Trump’s man threatened to get them deported if they were troublesome. A labor consultant testified that Trump reported the workers to immigration authorities.
The fear that their own employer might do the same should they cause any trouble often prompts undocumented workers to tolerate workplace violations. That is said to be particularly true among Mexicans, who make up nearly a quarter of the undocumented work force in New York. Mexicans have the highest employment rate—75 percent—of any group in the city, but many are also more likely to tolerate being paid less than the minimum wage while pressed to work as many as 100 hours a week.
All this mattered too little to too many voters in the recent election and Trump is now our president. The developer who got his big start with undocumented workers is now seeking to bully the place of his birth and upbringing into being less than itself.
Trump’s hometown is also home to an estimated 600,000 undocumented workers, including more than half the city’s dishwashers, as well as a third of its cooks and construction laborers, and just under a third of its mechanics, waiters, janitors, and maids.
“Although they broke the law by illegally crossing our borders or over-staying their visas and our businesses broke the law by employing them, our city’s economy would be a shell of itself had they not, and it would collapse if they were deported,” Mike Bloomberg said during his time as mayor.
Those workers include not just the day laborers, but the regular housekeepers and nannies who come and go from the apartments at Trump Tower every day. They each must now pass a police checkpoint. Imagine the tumult in the tower if the cops started detaining the hired help for immigration violations and Trump’s neighbors were left to wash their own floors and clean their own toilets and do their own laundry and even watch their own kids.
At least Trump and his neighbors will still have the specially trained cops with body armor and heavy weapons now posted at the tower’s entrance. Trump exempted law enforcement—in particular counterterrorism training—in his threat to cut off federal funding to sanctuary cities.
Not exempted are such things as child care services, school lunches for needy kids, AIDS prevention, domestic violence services, child support enforcement, and jobs development.
This, when New York City—Trump prominently not included—presently sends billions more each year to Washington than it receives in federal funding.
Even so, New York remains New York, and each dawn figures will continue to huddle in all weathers at La Parada and other corners, hoping for work nobody else will do at wages nobody else will accept.
After a decade of being out there day after day after day, Maria’s eyes still shone with a greatness of spirit when she saw a perspective employer approach. She called out, her voice bright in the morning’s gloom.
“Si,” she said. “Yes!”