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Trump's — And America's — Immigrant Labor Hypocrisy Smells Worse Amid COVID-19

An immigrant worker on the chicken production line at an Iowa poultry processing plant.
Courtesy Oxfam
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.


America’s immigrant labor hypocrisy — especially Trump America’s immigrant labor hypocrisy — stinks. And right now, as we used to say in Indiana, the smell could knock a buzzard off a manure wagon.

Or perhaps in this case I should say it could make a meat-packing plant seem fragrant.

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On Tuesday, President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act and ordered beef, pork and poultry processing plants to keep running — despite fears that they’re COVID-19 infection traps for their workers. Trump knows better than anyone that Americans consider cheap T-bones and hot wings a birthright. So he can’t let the coronavirus pandemic screw up that critical sector of the U.S. economy.

He’s also aware Americans expect inexpensive garden salads and baked potatoes on the side, so he’s also designated agricultural field workers essential food-supply-chain labor, too.

READ MORE: Undocumented Migrants: If We're 'Essential' Workers During COVID-19, Why Detain Us?

The hypocrisy of all this, of course, is that the vast majority of U.S. agricultural laborers, and a sizeable swath of meat-processing workers, are undocumented immigrants — the same folks whom Trump and his xenophobic base scapegoat for every problem in America except Joe Exotic’s mullet.

Those Latin American migrants are just about the only people who will do the back-breaking task of picking tomatoes in Florida or anywhere else in America. They also account for many if not most of the sanitation crew members who do the really unpleasant, graveyard-shift clean-up at meat-processing plants — like the hundreds arrested during federal immigration raids at Mississippi poultry facilities last year.

You don’t see a lot of MAGA hats harvesting strawberries or hosing down chicken cutters. That work is done by the people MAGA hats are usually worn to demonize.

Without them the U.S. food supply would be greatly reduced and its prices greatly increased. Repeat: Without undocumented migrants, the U.S. food supply would be less abundant and more expensive.

That’s not an endorsement of illegal immigration. It’s simply a statement of reality — a reality created not by bleeding-heart immigrant advocates, but by the same American wholesale shoppers and food industry executives who rely on plentiful, low-wage labor to preserve the American way of eating.

Why did Florida’s agriculture industry go berserk this year when Gov. Ron DeSantis tried to mandate E-Verify to assure every new hire has legal immigration status? It had nothing to do with concerns about bureaucracy; it had everything to do with fears of getting busted and losing labor supply.

Now that the COVID-19 pandemic is threatening that U.S. food fest, even Xenophobe-in-Chief Trump is tacitly acknowledging how important the Mexicans, Guatemalans and Hondurans he loves to call rapists, drug traffickers and murderers are to our kitchen tables.


The question is whether he actually considers the migrants worth protecting from a deadly virus.

Ask yourself if you recall Trump taking any time during his briefings to tell farms to make sure all those essential field hands have N-95 masks and are picking blueberries six feet apart. (He hasn’t.)

Rack your brain to remember him urging meat-processing businesses to watch out for their production-line and sanitation teams. Thousands of workers have become infected with COVID-19 at those plants across the U.S. — including hundreds at the Smithfield Foods pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Employees there, many of them Mexican immigrants, told Univision the company had not provided them protective gear or instituted social distancing.

Latin American migrant workers pick green beans near Homestead.
Credit C.M. Guerrero / Miami Herald
The Florida Channel
Latin American migrant workers pick green beans near Homestead.

The illnesses and deaths have forced the Smithfield plant and others around the country to shut down this month. That set off fire alarms at the White House — less because of the danger to worker health and more because of the threat to affordable food. Trump’s command to keep the rump roasts rolling came with his usual mess of mixed signals: the administration said it would issue worker safety guidelines, which Trump then rendered all but worthless by pledging to shield companies from liability if employees get infected due to employer negligence.

There is one ray of hope in the hypocrisy. In the meat-packing industry if not in the farm fields, U.S.-born citizens do labor alongside immigrants. They’re bearing the same brunt of Trump’s callousness right now that their foreign-born co-workers so often do; and so they’re surely a tad more sensitive to the absurd, required-and-reviled situation of America’s undocumented workers.

That might, just might, make more Americans attuned to the desperate need for immigration reform – especially a more sane and humane way of bringing in migrants to pick and process our food – once the pandemic subsides.

Or at least an immigration system whose double standards aren’t as rank as spoiled meat.

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Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.