On a visit to Iowa last week, President Donald Trump offered a rare bit of truth about illegal immigration.
“We’re getting your people in. You have people that have worked for you for a long time, don’t you? I know the people that you have, and their hard workers. We have a lot of great people,” Trump told an audience of supporters at a rally in Des Moines.
For a president who routinely exaggerates and fabricates facts about illegal immigration, telling the truth was an unexpected move. In Iowa, Trump seemed to acknowledge that immigrants, both legal and illegal, are productive members of the workforce and are integral to the economy.
Unfortunately, the president is not spinning that valuable realization into sensible policy positions. At the Des Moines rally and again at his State of the Union address this week, Trump continued villainizing immigrants and committed to continuing his administration’s heavy-handed immigration enforcement projects.
Immigrants made up about 17 percent of the civilian workforce nationally in 2017, the latest data available from Pew Research Center. That includes nearly 5 percent of the workforce comprised of unauthorized immigrants.
Having millions of workers with no legal status is not a sustainable situation. But instead of working to give those workers legal pathways, Trump threatens to hunt them down and deport them. On top of that, Trump has sought to diminish the labor supply by further restricting legal immigration.
Iowa and other agricultural states are especially dependent on foreign-born workers, including undocumented immigrants. The 2008 Postville crisis — the biggest immigration raid in U.S. history, targeting a meat packaging plant in northeast Iowa — exposed the ugly effects of the situation.
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Nearly 400 workers were arrested for document fraud and related charges, while businessmen who knowingly exploited undocumented laborers escaped meaningful accountability. The owner of Agriprocessors was never convicted of a crime related to the raid; his son was sentenced to 27 years in federal prison, but the sentence was commuted by Trump in 2017, following bipartisan pressure to do so.
It is a sickening example of hypocrisy. We rely on immigrants to grow, harvest and process the cheap food we demand at grocery stores. For all of their valuable contributions, they get few of the liberties and protections other American workers are entitled to.
Immigration, authorized or not, is widely seen as a net benefit to the U.S. economy. Yet Trump still bellows on about stolen jobs and overcrowded public facilities. Here in Iowa, we welcome newcomers to “steal” our long-vacant jobs and send their children to “overcrowd” our disappearing rural schools.
That’s why business leaders across Iowa — many of whom are faithful Republican voters — are making the case for more legal immigration. Projects like the Iowa Compact on Immigration have formed in recent years to communicate the business community’s need for more workers in our aging state.
Trump understands all of this, he just doesn’t care. So far, the political boost he’s earned from disparaging foreigners outweighs the downside.
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