Dec. 21, 2016: This story has been corrected.
During a Republican primary debate last February, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida seized a moment. He asserted that even though Donald Trump the candidate was attacking undocumented immigrants, Trump the businessman had used 200 undocumented Polish workers to build Trump Towers, the president-elect’s gilded Gotham high-rise.
This foreign-worker imbroglio involving Trump — there are more — led to a court ruling in 1991 that Trump associates were in on a plan to stiff a laborers’ union out of pension benefits by underpaying the Poles. Trump professed not to know about the workers’ status, according to reports, and he appealed. Fifteen years later, though, after some of the Poles went public in news reports about wage and safety violations, Trump ended the protracted legal battle with a sealed settlement.
“He brings up something from 30 years ago,” Trump said at the debate, lashing back at Rubio. Trump said laws were different then. “It worked out very well,” he said with a shrug. “Everybody was happy.”
But millions of Americans who are married or otherwise related to other undocumented people are not at all happy today — and they can’t afford to shrug off the past like Trump. Employers who have stepped up over the years to admit that many employees are likely undocumented are also dismayed. They fear that Trump’s election means the end of a long quest for immigration reform that recognizes that most undocumented workers are not the “criminals” or “bad hombres” that Trump excoriated during the campaign. Instead, they’re the spouses and parents of U.S. citizens, longtime co-workers and neighbors and home and business owners — and their issues, problems and challenges are far more complex than Trump’s heated rhetoric would make it appear.
A chill in the air
“Our members are scared out of their wits,” said Kim Anderson, a Minnesotan who leads American Families United. The group represents U.S. citizens with undocumented spouses who are unable to legalize those spouses under current immigration laws without great risks. Members are now coming to grips with the possibility that their circumstances are about to get even worse.
On immigration, like on many other subjects, it’s sometimes hard to figure where the president-elect’s bluster ends and his actual position lies. Trump’s stinging words about Mexicans and Muslims during the campaign are old news, but not forgotten as he prepares to take power. He initiated his campaign by fixating on Mexicans who cross the border, calling them “rapists” before adding, after a pause, that "some, I assume, are good people." He tried softening his rhetoric in an Arizona speech by referring to “the great contributions of Mexican-American citizens to our two countries … and the close friendship between our two nations.” But Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon as his chief White House strategist has inflamed tensions further because of Bannon’s talk-radio past and his Breitbart website, which features diatribes degrading immigrants and people of color.
For members of American Families United, the prospects their concerns will be heard feel thin.
A myth persists that if Americans marry undocumented people — who many have met at work — those spouses can easily transition to legal status. The reality is that Americans can no longer apply to get green cards for undocumented spouses without facing severe consequences if their husbands or wives originally entered the country illegally and were here for more than one year. Those spouses are automatically subject to being banished from the United States for 10 years, sometimes longer, even for life. This policy came about long before Trump; a Republican-controlled Congress tucked the punitive measures, known as bars, into the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Application of the bars was phased in, shocking a first wave of couples who were unaware of the changes.
More than 9 million people appear to live in “mixed status” families with an undocumented adult and at least one U.S.-born child, according to the Pew Research Center. As of 2014, Pew estimated, 66 percent of undocumented adults had been in the United States for more than 10 years — enough time to form families.
Because of the rules, some mixed-status families have already been forced into exile to stay intact. They’ve suffered financial strain and emotional trauma. Others, to keep jobs here, have had to live separately from spouses and children who are stuck abroad, as the Center for Public Integrity reported in 2012. Still others have chosen not even to try for green cards, and instead live every day worrying that a spouse could get picked up in a workplace raid or due to a traffic stop.
For years, these citizens have tried to persuade Congress unsuccessfully to reform these penalties— arguing that the bars have done nothing to deter illegal immigration and instead are a disproportionate punishment falling on Americans. Multiple bills with some bipartisan support have so far stalled in Congress.
President Obama’s administration did make a slight change that’s aided some in this community; in 2013 he issued a regulatory tweak allowing spouses seeking green cards to apply for waivers from banishment without having to leave the country, as had been required. However, since many spouses had already been advised they would not qualify for the narrow criteria for a waiver, they were unable to benefit from the regulatory change.
“Our members have lived in this unknown fear for years that at any given moment their lives can be wrecked, irreversibly,” Alexander said. With Trump’s election, “that’s been ratcheted up by 10 times.”