For weeks, dozens of construction workers from Latin America have streamed onto the site of the Old Post Office Pavilion in downtown Washington and taken pride in their work building one of the city’s newest luxury hotels.
But that job site is now laden with tension after the man behind the project – billionaire developer Donald Trump – put himself at the center of the nation’s debate over illegal immigration.
Trump garnered headlines – and prompted several business associates to sever relations with him – when he launched his bid for the Republican presidential nomination last month with a controversial description of drug dealers and “rapists” crossing the border each day into the United States from Mexico.
But a Trump company may be relying on some undocumented workers to finish the $200 million hotel, which will sit five blocks from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, according to several who work there. A Trump spokeswoman said the company and its contractors follow all applicable laws. But in light of Trump’s comments, some of the workers at the site said they are now worried about their jobs – while others simply expressed disgust over the opinions of the man ultimately responsible for the creation of those jobs.
All of them said they have been talking about Trump ever since his inflammatory remarks dominated coverage of his presidential announcement on June 16.
“It’s something ironic,” said Ivan Arellano, 29, who is from Mexico and obtained legal status through marriage. He now works as a mason laying the stonework for the lobby floor and walls of what will become the Trump International Hotel.
“The majority of us are Hispanics, many who came illegally,” Arellano said in Spanish. “And we’re all here working very hard to build a better life for our families.”
Interviews with about 15 laborers helping renovate the Old Post Office Pavilion revealed that many of them had crossed the U.S-Mexico border illegally before they eventually settled into the Washington region to build new lives.
Several of the men, who hail mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, have earned U.S. citizenship or legal status through immigration programs targeting Central Americans fleeing civil wars or natural disasters. Others quietly acknowledged that they remain in the country illegally.
“Most of the concern is that this escalates into a bigger problem,” said Daniel Gonzalez, 45, a sheet metal worker from El Salvador who crossed the border in the 1980s to escape his country’s civil war. He became a U.S. citizen after a federal immigration judge granted him asylum, he said.
“He might come one day and pretty much tell us to get the heck out of here,” Gonzalez said of Trump.
Several of the laborers – who travel to work from as far away as Baltimore or Manassas, Virginia, every day – fumed at Trump’s comments, saying that they have led honest lives that have allowed them to buy homes and raise U.S.-born children.
“Do you think that when we’re hanging out there from the eighth floor that we’re raping or selling drugs?” Ramon Alvarez, 48, a window worker from El Salvador, said during a break on Monday morning just outside the construction site. “We’re risking our lives and our health. A lot of the chemicals we deal with are toxic.”
In response to questions from The Washington Post, Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for the Trump Organization, issued a statement saying that the company and its contractors followed all applicable U.S. immigration laws when hiring the site’s several hundred workers.
“Our contractors are required to have prospective employees produce documentation that establishes identity and employment eligibility in compliance with immigration law,” the e-mailed statement said.
Lend Lease, the lead contractor at the site, “requires all contractors performing work at the project to follow all applicable federal, state and local laws,” the statement said.
Michael Cohen, executive vice president and legal counsel to Trump, said the question of illegal hiring practices had not arisen before at a Trump work site.
“Mr. Trump, who is the 100 percent owner of the Old Post Office, hired one of the largest contractors in the world to act as the general contractor,” Cohen said in a telephone interview. “That company is Lend Lease. They then go out and employ subcontractors to work for them. The obligation to check all workers on site is exclusive to Lend Lease. This of course assumes that the assertion regarding the employees’ status is accurate.”
A spokeswoman for Lend Lease declined to comment on any aspects of the project, which is expected to be finished by early 2016.
Hicks, also a spokeswoman for Trump’s political operation, said the campaign had no comment on the matter.
Trump’s comments about illegal immigration – which included a promise to “build a great, great wall on our southern border” and bill Mexico for the cost – reflect deep-rooted concerns among conservative voters over the effect of illegal immigration in the United States. Yet, concerns raised by workers at one of his company’s real estate ventures reveals the complexities of an issue that has long polarized the country.
The rapid rejection of Trump’s comments by some of his business partners may also reflect how perilous a topic immigration is, not just for Trump but the entire Republican presidential field.
Trump’s comments were popular with conservative activists across the country – and may even have helped elevate his status, with polls in the early nominating states Iowa and New Hampshire showing him gaining ground. But they were less popular among an increasingly diverse general electorate that serves as a consumer base for the influential corporate entities that were quick to distance themselves from the mogul’s remarks.
The NBC television network, the Macy’s department store chain and several other businesses have since severed ties with Trump – part of a backlash that has cheered Democrats and caused worry among Republicans seeking to win more Latino votes.
On Monday, several hundred people had also signed an online petition asking D.C. chef José Andrés to “dump Trump” by backing out of his deal to open the flagship restaurant at Trump’s hotel.
At the mammoth construction site in Washington that bears Trump’s name, workers said the controversy has caused some worry as they sandblast through layers of chipped paint in the 114-year-old building, install air-conditioning systems that will cool the new hotel’s 271 guest rooms, or cling to a scaffolding while they install windows.
The site is a bustling microcosm of blue-collar work life in Washington – with soaring turrets and a majestic clock tower that evoke the building’s heyday as the District’s main post office in the early 20th century.
Trucks roll in and out of the construction site carrying heavy loads of cement or carting off piles of debris. Over the din of surrounding traffic, foremen yell instructions to their charges, urging them to press forward on a project that will also include a massive ballroom, high-end restaurants and two luxurious suites in the former offices of the postmaster general.
Arms covered in dust, crowds of men recently took a break just outside the site while still wearing their hard hats and bright yellow construction vests, smoking cigarettes or arguing about sports in both English and Spanish.
Ahmad Samadi, 26, a site foreman who arrived last year from Afghanistan under U.S. political asylum, said he’s had to learn some Spanish to communicate with his crew. “Most of the workers here are migrants,” he said. Pausing, Samadi added about Trump: “I don’t think it’s right, what he said. They’re hard workers.”
For David Montoya, 28, Trump’s comments are a harsh reminder that anyone who is not a U.S. citizen is vulnerable to stricter immigration laws in the country. A truck driver at the hotel site, Montoya arrived from El Salvador in 1997, gaining temporary protected status from deportation in 2001. “Every 18 months, I have to get it renewed,” he said, in perfect English, adding that he dreams of permanent legal status.
Montoya reflected on his journey as an immigrant, which now includes three U.S.-born children and a house that he and his wife own in a quiet section of Silver Spring, Maryland. He noted with pride that he thinks his journey to a new world and story of hard work paying off is more impressive than that of the powerful developer whose name adorned the sign behind him as he spoke.
“Actually,” he reflected, “we’re more American than him.”