At Trump's Florida Resort Empire, a Quiet Effort to Eliminate a Workforce in the Country Illegally

PALM BEACH, Fla. — Behind the clipped hedges of President Donald Trump’s sumptuous private clubs in South Florida, including his Mar-a-Lago estate where he has spent many getaway weekends, there has long been a built-in contradiction to the policy the president has repeatedly described as “America First.”

At Trump's Florida Resort Empire, a Quiet Effort to Eliminate a Workforce in the Country Illegally

Many of his employees have foreign passports.

Romanians serve dinner in lavish banquet halls. South Africans tend to guests at the spa. Britons bake elegant pastries. Most are young people hired as guest workers on special visas, living over the winter high season in a gated community with a sand volleyball pit and a movie theater. In the mornings, they dress in trim uniforms and are chauffeured by van over a bridge to the luxury compound 6 miles away in Palm Beach.

But that’s only part of the Trump resort workforce in South Florida.

Alongside the foreign guest workers and the sizable American staff is another category of employees, mostly those who work on the pair of lush golf courses near Mar-a-Lago. Not offered apartments, they have been picked up by Trump contractors from groups of laborers in the country without permission at the side of the road; hired through staffing companies that assume responsibility for checking their immigration status; or brought onto the payroll with little apparent scrutiny of their Social Security cards and green cards, some of which are fake.


That second pool of immigrant labor is an embarrassing reality for a president who has railed against immigrants in the country illegally, one his company is scrambling to erase.

Trump has long acknowledged that running the hospitality industry on a tight supply of American labor is extraordinarily difficult — the reason Mar-a-Lago has frequently turned to legal guest workers for jobs that typically span only, in the case of Florida, the pleasant winter months. “It’s very, very hard to get people,” he explained during the 2016 campaign. “But other hotels do the exact same thing.”

In the case of the Trump Organization, the hiring of some immigrant labor may be about to change: Facing growing questions about its employment of workers in the country without permission, the company has quietly begun to take steps to eliminate any remaining workers in the country illegally from its labor pool in South Florida.

In March, seven veteran maintenance workers at Trump National Jupiter, the golf club 18 miles north of Mar-a-Lago that Trump purchased in 2012, were informed that the workforce was being reorganized. Workers had until March 22 to provide proof that they were legally eligible to work in the United States, they were told.

One by one, the workers — from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico — began to depart. Only one of the seven was a legal resident.


“They got rid of me after so many years of hard work because I don’t have papers,” said Doroteo Hernández, 42, an immigrant in the country illegally from Mexico who worked for 10 years on the maintenance crew at Jupiter, one of Trump’s favorite golfing spots on his weekends at Mar-a-Lago.

Hernández, a diminutive man with a weather-beaten face and workman’s hands, said that in late March he handed over 11 well-worn, button-down shirts embroidered with his name and the name of the club, 11 pairs of khakis and a club cap to his supervisor, who praised him and gave him a farewell hug.

“I’m battling on,” said Hernández, who supports his parents and siblings in Mexico. “Everyone just wants to take care of their family.”

Similar scenes have played out at a number of Trump Organization golf properties since The New York Times first reported that two housekeepers in the country without permission had for several years worked in proximity to Trump at his golf property in Bedminster, New Jersey. Additional laborers working without legal authorization came forward at other Trump golf properties, some of them deliberately kept off the lists of workers vetted by the Secret Service.

The workers in the country without permission raise questions not only about the Trump Organization’s hiring practices, but also about security at Mar-a-Lago and the luxurious golf properties that surround it — recently subject to scrutiny after a woman carrying two Chinese passports and a thumb drive containing malicious software was detained March 30 at Mar-a-Lago.


Though maintenance workers, drivers and painters from Mexico and Central America would not normally be thought of as security threats, the presence of workers with fraudulent identity documents poses additional complications in vetting those who may be in proximity to the president at his leisure properties in Florida and elsewhere.

In Palm Beach County, home to dozens of hotels, golf resorts and residential communities, there is a steady demand for menial labor, some of it performed by foreigners who come in on H-2B guest worker visas. The Trump Florida properties requested 148 of these immigrant workers for the 2018-19 season, an increase over most past years. This is one area of immigration that the Trump administration has pushed to expand.

Meanwhile, across the county, immigrant enclaves have grown in the shadows of multimillion-dollar homes — places where the streets are lined with much humbler homes, butcher shops called carnicerías, and money-order offices where on Fridays immigrants wire money home to relatives. Unlike those living in the gated complex, the immigrants here are mainly Central American, Mexican and Haitian.

A number of staffing company offices — discreet, sometimes with mirrored glass windows — are tucked into strip malls. Here, workers can submit applications to be placed on job sites, sometimes the same day.

Staffing companies were originally intended to serve as external human resource departments, supplying temporary workers and handling their paperwork, according to Richard Celler, an employment lawyer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. But now, Celler said, “it’s morphed.” He said employers had come to run their regular workers through the companies to cut the cost of workers’ compensation insurance and to narrow their liability.


“It’s the outsourcing of labor,” he said.

There is another important advantage.

Greg Schell, a lawyer based in Lake Worth, Florida, who represents farmworkers and other migrant workers, said that as employers have faced increased scrutiny from federal authorities over hiring undocumented labor, they have turned to staffing companies, some of which engage in careful immigration verification, some of which do not. These companies enable many Florida farms and golf resorts, which can have difficulty finding legal workers, to maintain large work crews without assuming legal responsibility for their immigration status, Schell said.

“The whole concept is to have someone else bear the responsibility,” he said.

Not long ago, groundskeepers and golf maintenance workers were directly employed at the Trump properties in Florida and frequently moved between them, according to former employees. However, in recent years, the organization transferred the work crews at Mar-a-Lago and nearby golf courses over to Barnett Management, a staffing company with headquarters in West Palm Beach that specializes in supplying golf maintenance, landscaping, farm and nursery workers, as well as setup staff for events and banquets.


In late February, Jeff Payer, the Jupiter club’s golf course superintendent, called in Hernández and the six other maintenance workers who were still on the payroll of another staffing company, Ryvor Golf, the immigrant workers said. Payer informed them that they would be transferred to Barnett, which was already handling the majority of the club’s roughly three dozen golf maintenance workers and groundskeepers, they said.

“He told us, ‘You can keep working; we trust you and know your work,’ ” recalled Roberto Carlos Méndez, 29, a Guatemalan. Payer declined to be interviewed and did not respond to questions.

But in early March, several of the former workers said, a Barnett representative who visited the club said they could not stay on, telling them that only workers with legal immigration papers would be allowed to transfer to Barnett’s payroll.

“I spoke personally to the Barnett guy. He told me that, unfortunately, I didn’t qualify to stay at the club,” said Méndez, who had worked at the Jupiter property since sneaking across the border nearly four years ago.

In separate interviews, five of the workers offered the same account. All said they were in the country illegally and had been hired despite having phony identification cards and Social Security numbers and as recently as 2 1/2 years ago, during the 2016 presidential campaign. Florida law does not require employers to use the E-Verify electronic verification system to check employees’ documents, though some companies, including Barnett, use it voluntarily.


No one from the management at the Jupiter club, or at any of the Florida Trump properties, responded to interview requests for this story, nor did officials from the Trump Organization. But none of the immigrants doubted that club managers were aware all along that they were in the country illegally, and were disappointed to see them go.

“They knew immigrants working there are here illegally,” said Giovanni Velásquez, a 23-year-old from Guatemala who said he had been allowed to continue working as long as he did because he was needed. “The know-how that I have, the work I do, can’t be easily replaced. No American wants to do it.”

Méndez said that he spent 10 minutes with the Barnett representative trying to ascertain why the Ryvor workers were being let go while workers already on Barnett’s payroll, some of whom he believed were also in the country illegally, were untouched.

“I told him, ‘I don’t understand,’ ” he said. “He responded that going forward, they will not take people without papers.”

This transition to a greater reliance on staffing companies appeared to begin around 2016, former workers said, though it is not clear if there was any connection to Trump’s presidential campaign.


Barnett officials declined to discuss the recent staff moves at Jupiter or any other matters. “Barnett Management complies with all federal laws and regulations with respect to the hiring of employees,” Corey Witzel, general counsel for Barnett’s parent company, MVP Staffing, said in an email.

In addition to the workers who recently lost their jobs at the Jupiter club, around a dozen other workers in the country without permission at local pickup spots and a resource center for day laborers told The Times that they had worked stints at the golf club, brought in by contractors to install irrigation plumbing, spray insecticide and paint houses. One of them said he had worked there for years.

A man who gave only his first name, Santos, 31, said that “they give us a permisito” — a pass — “so we could go in.” He said he had worked nearly three years painting houses at the golf club starting in 2012.

A 24-year-old who also gave only his first name, Alfonso, said he, too, worked at the Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter as part of a painting crew, and was allowed to continue there even after Trump became president. “Nothing changed with the election,” he said.

As the deadline approached for the maintenance workers in the country illegally at the Jupiter club to leave their jobs, many pondered their futures. Méndez, one of the Guatemalan immigrants, said that he was offered maintenance work at other golf clubs, but for less than the $11 hourly wage he made at Jupiter. “If we take a job at a golf club for less, we are moving backward instead of advancing,” he said.


Daniel Federico Gómez, 23, said he had not found a job, either, though he had started to train the replacements who would be taking the workers’ places at Jupiter.

Two days before the March 22 deadline, Gómez and Méndez were the last of the group still on the job.

Velásquez had found work at an Italian restaurant washing dishes for $10 an hour. “I have to start all over,” he said. “All my experience is on the golf course.”

As for Hernández, a friend found him a landscaping job. Sitting in his neat apartment after his second day of work, he was still not sure about his salary. Payer, the golf superintendent, had found work for him and his co-workers at another golf course, Hernández said, but it was too far away for someone like him, who cannot obtain a Florida driver’s license because he has no proof of legal residence.

On his last day at Jupiter, he returned every part of his tattered Trump uniform. “They cannot say I took a single thing that didn’t belong to me,” he said.


His boss, however, had insisted he keep the cap with the club logo.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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