Protecting American jobs by preventing foreigners from taking them was a major theme throughout the Trump campaign. Soon after Trump won the Republican nomination, questions began to emerge about whether Melania Trump was among those people who had worked illegally in the United States. If she had, and her husband’s proposed policies had been in effect, she would have been a high-priority target for arrest and deportation to Slovenia.
How Trump handled this potential crisis proved how clever he is at distorting an argument to avoid an issue. And it would show how what Trump told voters on immigration and jobs was mostly talk, not the promised action to make sure foreigners did not, legally or illegally, take American jobs.
Questions about whether Melania Knauss (sometimes spelled Knavs) worked illegally arose after Trump’s favorite tabloid, the New York Post, ran nude photos of her on its cover and inside for two days, using stars to cover strategic spots. The photos included lesbian poses. That Trump or someone acting with his approval supplied the photos became clear when the freshly nominated Republican candidate’s campaign was asked about them.
Instead of denouncing the newspaper, a spokesman called the photos art, though the setting—a mattress with a sheet, the bed pressed against a bare wall and harsh lighting—was not up to the standards of either Playboy or the late art photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
As for his wife’s immigrant status, Trump spoke up in August 2016 using his universal “they” to cover anyone in journalism.
“They said, ‘Melania Trump may have come into our country illegally’ and ‘how would that be for Donald Trump?’ Here’s the only problem, she came in totally legally,” he said, indicating they had spoken privately about whether to respond. “I said to her: ‘No no, let it simmer for a little while. Let them go wild, let it simmer, and then let’s have a little news conference.’”
Speaking in North Carolina, Trump said his wife entered the United States legally. “Let me tell you one thing. She has got it so documented, so she’s going to have a little news conference over the next couple of weeks. That’s good. I love it. I love it.”
There was never such a news conference. No documents were provided, either.
That allowed Trump to get away with diverting the issue to one not raised. The issue was whether Melania had worked in the United States illegally. But just as with his tax returns, Trump promised but failed to deliver.
Months later, diligent reporters from the Associated Press uncovered business records from Metropolitan International Management, which had Melania’s contract. It had later folded. The records showed that Melania Knauss had indeed worked illegally in the United States in 1995. She took at least ten modeling jobs that in all paid more than $20,000. She was an independent contractor, but the modeling agency gave her a pager, putting her at management’s beck and call, and loaned her money, the business records showed.
Knauss turned 25 that year, making her old to be a fashion or swimsuit model. That may explain why she got so little work at modest pay and did nude photos with another woman.
Fashion shows and magazines prefer teenage girls. Until New York State passed a law in 2014 making models 17 and younger subject to rules governing child actors, the majority of fashion models were legally children, many only 14 years old, according to the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which urged the legislation.
As a candidate, Trump promised to round up every one of the estimated 11 million people living in the United States without the government’s permission, people some call undocumenteds and others call illegals. He was especially vocal about deporting those with jobs. Any noncitizen without a Green Card, shorthand for federal government permission to work, steals a job from an Americans and should be deported, Trump said over and over.
But while Trump railed against illegal work, his actions as a business owner were quite different, demonstrating a basic Trumpian philosophy—there are two standards. One is for the Trumps and anyone they like. It is soft and easy. The other is harsh. It’s for everyone not aligned with the Trumps, especially those the president dislikes, most especially Mexicans and Muslims.
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump often railed against work visa programs allowing foreigners to enter the country and work for periods from ninety days up to ten years.
Candidate Trump said in a written statement that he was “totally committed to eliminating rampant, widespread H-1B abuse and ending outrageous practices such as those that occurred at Disney in Florida when Americans were forced to train their foreign replacements. I will end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first for every visa and immigration program. No exceptions.”
H-1B is one of several programs that allowed American companies to use foreign workers. All of them had rules that made the workers temporary guests. To critics, especially software code writers, it was a program to push down wages.
Half of the foreign workers were hired by computer industry companies, many in Silicon Valley. And half of those workers earned $88,000 or less. Whether these guest workers were paid less than Americans, and thus depressed the wages of Americans, is hotly debated in Silicon Valley. The issue is further complicated by the fact that software coding could be done in a remote location, say India, where a large share of the work-visa hires come from. End the visa program and instead of hiring more American programmers, Silicon Valley might just outsource much of the work from Cupertino and Redwood City to Bangalore and Hyderabad.
The justification for high-tech guest workers is that there are not enough Americans with the skills to do the work. If that is so, then slowly, steadily shrinking the number of visas should result in rising wages, which would attract more Americans and prompt them to invest in skills worthy of higher pay. Continuing the program at roughly the same level only perpetuates any shortage of native workers and puts downward pressure on American wages.
In April 2017 Trump told an audience in Kenosha, Wisconsin, that he was about to take bold action on foreign guest workers. He promised to end the “theft of American prosperity.” Foreign worker visas “should never, ever be used to replace American workers,” he said.
But the executive order he signed was not bold, as Trump said, but tepid. It simply directed four cabinet agencies to “suggest reforms” with no deadline for submitting their ideas.
There are also work visas for low-skilled workers like the staff at Mar-a-Lago, which had for years relied on the very workers Trump wanted kept out—foreigners. Trump said during one of the Republican primary debates that Mar-a-Lago, like other local seasonal resort properties, had no choice but to import workers. “People don’t want a short-term job,” he said. “So, we will bring people in, and we will send the people out. All done legally.”
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida broke in. “That’s not accurate,” he said, because at least three hundred Americans who sought work at Mar-a-Lago were not hired. That, Rubio said, helped Trump push down wages, the very issue Trump complained was caused by too many foreign workers in America.
“When you bring someone in on one of these visas they can’t go work for anybody else,” Rubio noted. “They either work for you or they have to go back home. You basically have them captive, so you don’t have to worry about competing for higher wages with another hotel down the street. And, that’s why you bring workers from abroad.”
Trump kept interrupting Rubio, making it difficult for those watching to understand the debate unless they read the transcript later.
The public record showed that hundreds of local residents did want jobs but were not hired.
In July 2017 the Trump administration decided to let in more foreign workers, not exactly what Trump promised on inauguration day when he said every decision would be made to promote American jobs and buy American.
American “businesses in danger of suffering irreparable harm due to a lack of available temporary nonagricultural workers” would be able to hire an additional 15,000 foreigners in temporary low-skill, low-paid jobs.
That would increase supply by more than 40 percent for the second half of the year.
This was a prime example of Trump not walking his campaign talk in office, but also of driving down wages, just as Rubio had said was Trump’s goal.
In Palm Beach, for example, hundreds of people were willing to work at the wages offered by Mar-a-Lago, roughly $10 to $13 an hour, for the 2016–17 season.
Locally four people wanted work for every low-skill resort job offered. That means there was no shortage of local labor for the seasonal positions. With so many workers available, hiring locals might not even put upward pressure on wages. When there is so much more demand for work than employers could supply, employers can offer less pay and still recruit people.
But workers who come from overseas on visas are subject to more control. Their employer can arrange pay that depends on their staying until the last day of the season and hold back part of their pay through “bemusing” arrangements. That means anyone who gets out of line, anyone who gets fired, gets shorted on his or her pay and sent home early.
President Trump declared July 24 the start of Made in America Week. Trump said he would be “recognizing the vital contributions of American workers and job creators to our Nation’s prosperity.”
The same week a tiny classified ad ran twice in the back pages of The Palm Beach Post. It offered work for “3 mos recent & verifiable exp in fine dining/country club.” The jobs paid wages only—“No tips.”
The ads did not identify the employer, but the fax was a Mar-a-Lago number.
A week earlier, Mar-a-Lago had applied to the Labor Department—run by a Trump appointee—for visas to import 35 people to wait on tables, 20 cooks, and 15 chambermaids. All it needed to do was show that it offered work and not enough people showed up to take the jobs. That was easily accomplished. Run a tiny ad with few details. Tell locals to apply via fax, a technology few people seeking such low-paid seasonal work were likely to own. People could mail a letter but letters can get lost or take time being delivered.
Those two ads, and the predictably weak response, met the legal requirement necessary to import foreign workers under the H-2B visa program from October 2017 until June 2018.
There was, perhaps, one positive in these foreign workers being hired at Mar-a-Lago to wait on Trump’s paying guests. Unlike Melania Knauss Trump, they wouldn’t be violating American law.
Trump often states as fact that illegal immigrants are a drag on the economy. He complains of “Americans losing their jobs to foreign workers.”
To stop that, he supported the RAISE Act, for Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment. It would fundamentally change the rules on legal immigration, something Congress did in 1924 and again in 1965. Ostensibly the bill’s purpose is to “establish a skills-based immigration points system, to focus family-sponsored immigration on spouses and minor children, to eliminate the Diversity Visa Program, to set a limit on the number of refugees admitted annually to the United States.”
That would mean that more people with job skills could enter the country, which in general will tend to depress wages for people with similar skills, but which may also help grow the economy. The focus on spouses and minor children means that grandparents, grandchildren, and cousins are out and the age of minors would be lowered from 21 to 18.
The bill was analyzed at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, the school Trump claims he attended when he went only to its undergraduate program in real-estate economics.
The analysis found that the bill would make wages grow briefly in the short term but that as the years rolled by the new policy would destroy American jobs, resulting in slower economic growth. That certainly is not what Trump claimed he would do with his slogans about America First and Make America Great Again.
The most interesting finding from the Penn Wharton budget model computer program was that simply doubling the number of immigrants from about 800,000 per year to 1.6 million would do the most to increase economic growth per person. The education level of the immigrants did not matter.
This larger influx would result in significantly more Gross Domestic Product per capita, which would reach $83,700 in 2050. Leaving the number of immigrants at 800,000, but requiring that 55 percent arrive with high job skills, would mean no more than $76,100 per capita of economic output. Thus, more immigrants regardless of job skills is better for Americans overall by 10 percent.
The most troubling finding of this study was that the RAISE Act favored by Trump “could shave two percentage points off GDP growth and cause a loss of more than four million jobs” by the year 2040.
Kent Smetters, the Wharton business professor who worked on the computer model, noted that immigrants of all kinds are a “net positive” because they “tend to work pretty hard, they tend to have a very high attachment rate to the labor force, they are less likely to be on unemployment insurance” because they come to America in the hopes of improving their and their family’s economics.
In addition, Smetters said, “as younger members of the workforce, immigrants also help pay for Social Security and Medicare for the elderly. That is a crucial benefit as the U.S.,” like many other countries with modern economies, faces an aging population with a shrinking ratio of workers to retirees.
The Wharton model is available without charge, allowing people to experiment with policy options at www.budgetmodel.wharton.upenn.edu /immigration/.
Jim Acosta, a network television correspondent whose parents fled Castro’s Cuba, asked at a White House press briefing about the RAISE Act, which favors English-speaking immigrants. His question drew a sharp, condescending response from the designated White House spokesman, Stephen Miller, a Steve Bannon associate who often sounds like a white nationalist.
Acosta brought up the poem in the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal and its famous last lines:
Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Acosta said the proposed immigration policy seemed to run counter to those ideals. Miller shot back that the poem was added to its pedestal later, while the statute is “a symbol of American liberty lighting the world.”
What Miller didn’t say, or didn’t know, or perhaps knew but didn’t want others to know, is that Lazarus’s 1883 poem was critical to the efforts to raise money for the pedestal on which the statue stands. The statue was not completed until three years later, making her words integral.
This might seem an odd subject for the White House spokesman of the day to raise, but it stems from an active discussion among the people that Bannon calls the alt-right and critics call racists and white supremacists to develop a narrative that most immigrants are unworthy of America.
A leading racist, Richard Spencer, who says he was Miller’s mentor, which Miller does not dispute, had denounced the Emma Lazarus poem three days before Trump became president.
“It’s offensive that such a beautiful, inspiring statue was ever associated with ugliness, weakness, and deformity,” Spencer tweeted. This theme was picked up a few days later by Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing radio talk show host. He told his audience that “the Statue of Liberty had absolutely nothing to do with immigration” and mused, “Why do people think that it does? Well, there was a socialist poet.”
David Duke, the former KKK leader, attacked the poem and Lazarus in “The Jewish Led Alien Invasion,” a chapter in one of his books filled with diatribes against Jews and others he hates.
In the fluid zone between white nationalists in the Trump White House and violent racists in Charlottesville, the Statue of Liberty has become a symbol of efforts to make America white again, although, of course, it never was all white.
An immigrant from Ireland, John Carney, took up the Acosta-Miller exchange. Carney is the economics editor at Breitbart, Bannon’s gathering place for the like-minded.
Carney tweeted that what Breitbart and Trump call the “opposition” news media were engaged in “the Weaponization of the Statue of Liberty.” He also pointed to political cartoons that used the statue and caricatures of Trump to argue visually that the president wants immigration restricted to white, English-speaking Christians.
Then Carney focused his attention on the September 2017 cover of Vogue. The fashion magazine featured an Annie Leibovitz photograph of actress Jennifer Lawrence in a low-cut, tight-fitting red satin dress. Lawrence was leaning against a metal railing as if on the prow of a ship, the statue behind her, surrounded by water and clouds in luscious shades of blue.
Breitbart’s Carney saw this as an attack on Trump’s Make America Great Again theme, connecting it to the Acosta-Miller exchange. “We’re going to have to create a full #MAGA shadow cultural industry because the Opposition Media can’t even do fashion without attacking us.”
But there was a problem with Carney insinuating that the Vogue cover was part of a journalistic cabal. Zara Rahim, the Vogue spokeswoman, informed Carney that the photo could not have anything to do with that August exchange in the White House press briefing room because “we shot this in June, buddy.”
Trump regards Breitbart as a reliable source of information, just as he has made statements that trace back to the Russian propaganda website Sputnik, the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer, and InfoWars, where host Alex Jones carries on about the “interdimensional beings” secretly controlling American elites. Trump has been an InfoWars guest.
None of these information sources that Trump relies on considers refugees to be a crisis worthy of American help. None writes favorably or evenhandedly about people of color, especially regarding immigration. None pays heed to humanitarian crises caused by wars, famine, and other disruptions, even though 66 million people, nearly 1 percent of earth’s population, were forced to live away from their homes in 2016.
That estimate by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees counted a third of these people as refugees. More than a third came from two predominantly Muslim countries, Afghanistan and Syria, where American military actions played a major role in forcing people to flee. But the sources of information Trump relies on share with him a bias against Muslims and Islam.
Nearly 85,000 people entered America in 2016 as refugees, about one tenth of legal immigrants. Other countries, many of them desperately poor, like Chad, allowed in far more refugees. Sweden, with 10 million people, has about half as many refugees as America with its more than 320 million people. To Miller, Limbaugh, Bannon, Carney, Jones, and the others, those 85,000 refugees are about 84,999 too many.
These “information” sources also keep up a steady alarmist tone about the border with Mexico, even though illegal crossings into the United States fell sharply with the Great Recession and have been flat since, according to federal government data and reports by private organizations. Of the estimated 9 to 11 million people living in the United States without authorization, two thirds came more than a decade earlier, the Pew Research Center found.
Those crossing the border in 2017 were more likely to come from Central America and Asia than Mexico, whose economy has improved since NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, was signed in 1993. But to the sources of information Trump relies on, all immigrants look alike and all are to be feared and kept out unless they look and talk like people on the alt-right. And to Trump, foreign workers are bad, unless they serve his Mar-a-Lago customers, earning cheap wages with no tips.
From It's Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America by David Cay Johnston. Copyright 2018 by David Cay Johnston. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.