Commentary: Trump’s immigration blame game

Donald Trump stands with his hands raised at the front of the House of Representatives. Behind him, Nancy Pelosi looks on.

President Donald J. Trump made it clear that use his State of the Union address to try to make a case for $5.7 billion to build a border wall. And on Tuesday night, he did just that, dwelling on a stream of select negative anecdotes and factually challenged claims about undocumented immigrants.

What he doesn’t really like to get into much are the reasons why so many migrants have come to the United States over the course of history.   

About a decade ago, I met a woman in Agua Prieta, Mexico, just south of Douglas, Arizona, whose story crystallized what’s often missing from today’s immigration blame game.   

As she ate a meal at the Agua Prieta Center for Attention to the Migrant Exodus, a freshly deported Georgina Salinas told me about her husband in Yuba City, north of Sacramento, California. He’d been doing farm work, and a ladder he scaled to harvest olives had collapsed. His foot was broken.

“She needed to get north to take his place in the fields and make money,” I wrote for the Sacramento Bee newspaper.

Salinas’ eldest son was also in Yuba City, she said, and his earnings helped support another son back in Mexico so he could become a university graduate.

But Salinas’ plan to take her husband’s place had been foiled. 

After she’d been delivered to the border by trusted coyotes from her home in the southern state of Veracruz, her journey became a lot more frightening. The smugglers in the Agua Prieta area told the migrants to climb a ladder they propped up against fencing and drop to the other side. But that didn’t happen until after one of the smugglers had raped a migrant woman inside a vehicle, Salinas told me tearfully.  

The woman who’d been raped, Salinas said, was so desperate to get to a job waiting for her north of the border that she had endured her assault. But after the migrants scaled the fence, the Border Patrol caught them immediately.  

Roman Garcia was one of the migrants who was well aware of what happened at the fence. He looked ashamed as Salinas told her story.  

At that time, hundreds of migrants were dying every year attempting to cross into the US through the Mexican-Arizona Sonora Desert. Garcia recalled that it had been easier just a few years earlier to get across and onto California.

“Within a month of pruning grapevines in Napa, laboring in the tomato fields west of Sacramento and picking melons, persimmons and other fruits and vegetables, he was able to pay off the $1,200 fee the smugglers had charged,” I wrote, recounting Garcia’s tale.  

In other words, like so many other immigrant workers, Garcia had shouldered the monetary cost and the risk of assault, injury and death so he could take a job harvesting America’s crops that he knew would be waiting for him.   

It’s never been easy. But now, there’s another burden to endure — the rhetoric of blame coming not from a right-wing talk show host, but from the president of the United States.  

And there’s plenty of it.  

Since he kicked off his campaign, Trump has blamed both undocumented and legal immigrants for decades of decline in Americans’ wages, a false claim dissected in detail by the Center for Public Integrity.  

He’s blamed immigrants for stealing jobs from Americans, even as his own companies have brought in seasonal foreign guest workers because Trump says they can’t find locals to do the jobs. The president has also lashed out at undocumented workers for using fake documents, even as employees at Trump resorts who’ve identified themselves as undocumented say managers knew full well that their papers were phony.   

During the government shutdown, Trump attended an event that drove home this penchant for blaming immigrants for illegal immigration, while absolving those who do the hiring.  

He delivered remarks on Jan. 15 before part of what he considers his loyal base: The American Farm Bureau, which was holding its 100th annual convention in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Associations that represent an array of businesses — including Trump’s own hospitality industry — have all taken positions in favor of legalizing undocumented workers who’ve been here for years.

But no industry has been out in front on this as much as agribusiness.

During his American Farm Bureau speech, Trump railed about Congress declining to budget $5.7 billion for a wall — leading to the shutdown — and vowed repeatedly that he’d build that wall as promised. He received applause.

Eventually, though, Trump made a quiet promise to farmers that a lot of the Trump base would not appreciate.

In the same breath that he denounced “this terrible crisis” at the border, with caravans of migrants, he acknowledged to farmers that he knew “you need these people.”

“I’m not going to rule that out,” he said, “I’m going to make that easier for them to come and to work the farms.”

But last year, even when the GOP held both houses of Congress, a farm labor proposal that Trump backed flopped.  

Legislation that divided agribusiness proposed turning undocumented farmworkers into so-called guest workers. They’d have to uproot and return to Mexico or other native countries and “touch back” before they’d be readmitted. As newly anointed temporary workers, they’d only be eligible to work here for certain periods. And they’d have no path to legal US permanent residency, no matter how long they’d already labored here or how long they worked in the future.  

Labor unions vehemently opposed this proposal, and so did the California Farm Bureau and the Western Growers Association, whose members produce most of America’s produce. “Western Growers directors believe few of their employees would leave spouses and children behind in the US, many subject to deportation, on the questionable assumption that the federal government will efficiently readmit them as temporary seasonal guest workers,” the agribusiness group said last year in response to the proposal, which Trump backed.

Western Growers President Tom Nassif, no stranger to Republican politicians nationally, has often emphasized how critical immigrants are to the produce industry, referring to them as  “saviors,”  according to The Packer, an industry publication.

For now, though, because immigration has “become radioactive,” and anti-immigrant talk “appeals to millions,” the editor of The Packer has offered advice for the industry.

At this point, editor Greg Johnson wrote last year, “immigration, and Trump for that matter, are politically polarizing, and politics and business don’t mix.”

The industry should keep a low profile, he advised, and stick to arguments “that the US has the world’s best food system, and part of the reason it’s so economical is its ability to produce so much high-quality food thanks to the workforce.”

Beyond that, Johnson advised agribusiness, avoid taking positions on a border wall, or a path to citizenship for workers, or legalization for Dreamers, who were brought here as undocumented children. None of those issues, he wrote, gets the farm industry any closer to a “legal reliable workforce.”

Calling immigrant workers “saviors,” he argued, doesn’t help farmers because it’s “unnecessary political language.”

What that means in the Trump era is that immigrants will be derided as villains — and that they will continue to shoulder all the blame for a system that even Trump himself has acknowledged is the American way.     

The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit investigative news organization in Washington, DC.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.