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Trump Organization fires more undocumented workers — a year after its use of illegal labor was revealed
Joshua Partlow and
David A. Fahrenthold
Dec. 31, 2019 / The Washington Post
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Nearly a year after the Trump Organization pledged to root out undocumented workers at its properties, supervisors at the Trump Winery on Monday summoned at least seven employees and fired them because of their lack of legal immigration status, according to two of the dismissed workers.
The timing of the firings at the rural Virginia winery, 11 months after the company began purging the ranks of undocumented greenskeepers and cooks at Trump golf courses, came during the vineyard’s winter downtime. Workers had finished the arduous annual grape harvest, which involved working 60-hour weeks and overnight shifts under floodlights.
Two of the fired workers — Omar Miranda, a 42-year-old tractor driver from Honduras, and a second employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect family members seeking to stay in the United States — said they thought the company had held off on firing them until after the year’s work was complete, taking advantage of their labor for as long as possible. Both had worked at the winery for more than a decade.
“They didn’t make this decision in the summer because they needed us a lot then,” Miranda said. The second employee said, “I think they wanted to get their product out well, the grapes, to make sure that was taken care of, and once things were slow, they could fire us all.”
In response to questions from The Washington Post, the Trump Organization emailed only a statement that said, “Consistent with our efforts, we will immediately terminate any individual who has provided fake identification in order to unlawfully gain employment.”
The Trump Winery, set amid rolling hills in Virginia wine country, is a minor part of President Trump’s portfolio. The property is located near President Thomas Jefferson’s former home at Monticello and down the road from a winery owned by musician Dave Matthews. Trump bought the property in 2011 and 2012 out of foreclosure for $16.2 million, renovated the manor house into a boutique hotel and created an adjacent venue for weddings.
The labor-intensive winery has long relied on a couple dozen immigrants — primarily from Mexico — who legally arrive year after year on seasonal work visas, living in a dormitory on the winery property during the harvest. But there has also long been a smaller parallel staff of undocumented employees who worked at the property year-round. This was the group fired Monday.
“Donald Trump has known about these workers for months,” said Anibal Romero, an immigration lawyer who represents many of Trump’s former undocumented employees and is advising Miranda. “He waits until the fields are tended, grapes picked, wine made. He then discards them like a used paper bag. Happy New Year — you’re fired.”
Over the past year, The Post has spoken with 49 people who had worked illegally for the Trump Organization at 11 of its properties in Florida, New Jersey, New York and Virginia. These employees spent years — and in some cases nearly two decades — performing manual labor at Trump’s properties.
Trump has made stopping illegal immigration a centerpiece of his presidency, decrying unauthorized immigrants as a threat to the country’s safety and blaming undocumented workers for taking jobs from American citizens. But for years his company has relied on that low-wage, illegal labor, without explaining how some employees kept their jobs despite lacking proper papers.
The New York Times reported in December 2018 that undocumented workers were employed at Trump’s golf club in New Jersey. Shortly after, the Trump Organization promised to fire any of its workers in the country illegally.
Miranda, aware of the firings at other Trump properties throughout the year, spent months living with the anxiety of knowing that his dismissal could come at any moment. After a Spanish-language report by Univision in May revealed that the winery employed some undocumented workers, the Trump Organization appeared to take no action apart from firing the employee who let the camera crew onto the property.
The fall harvest came, and Miranda spent hours driving a tractor in the predawn dark. Then fall turned to winter, and he did the hard work of pruning vines. His bosses only praised his work, never mentioning immigration, papers or firings. The president’s son Eric Trump, who oversees the winery, even pulled Miranda’s name during a holiday raffle in early December, awarding him a $500 prize.
Then on Monday, the bosses asked to see him.
“So, when we looked at your forms and documents, some of the documentation did not seem genuine, or was insufficient,” Kerry Woolard, the winery’s general manager, told him, according to an audio recording obtained by The Post. “Do you currently have legal permission to work in the United States?”
“No,” Miranda replied.
“So unfortunately, this means we have to end our employment relationship today,” Woolard said. “We’re very sad. You’ve been wonderful. If your employment status ever changes, you’re welcome back, of course.”
Then she gave him. a big hug, Miranda said.
On Tuesday at the winery, the vast rows of vines were leafless and empty, and the tractors Miranda had used were parked neatly in a row. A receptionist said that Woolard did not have time to speak to a reporter.
The Post has spoken extensively to Miranda over the past five months — interviewing him in Spanish and on the condition that no article would be published while he still worked at the winery. The Post confirmed Miranda’s employment by viewing pay stubs and observing him punching in at the winery’s security gate.
Miranda’s job was to drive a tractor down the narrow trellis rows. Some days, that meant spraying pesticides on the chardonnay and viognier grapes. On other occasions, he guided motorized pruning blades to trim the leaves. From his cockpit, he would share his cellphone videos of his work with The Post.
“It’s not difficult, but it gets boring,” he said in one video from August.
Because of worsening back pain, Miranda preferred these tasks to the job of picking grapes by hand and loading them into yellow plastic bins. Much of that work was done by legal immigrants — the Mexicans on temporary work visas.
This year, the Trump Organization received permission for 29 such seasonal visas.
But the winery also relied on illegal labor to supplement those positions. Miranda and other former staffers said that undocumented employees assisted with the winemaking and storage process, with landscaping around the hotel, and in the fields.
Many of these employees, including Miranda, live in Southwood, a trailer park tucked in the woods on the outskirts of Charlottesville, about 120 miles southwest of Washington.
Miranda had been a lathe operator in his native Honduras, making plastic parts for a Honduran beer company. After his brother received death threats from a rival businessman, Miranda paid a smuggler $5,500 to get to the United States. He swam the Rio Grande in 2004 and soon moved to the trailer park in Charlottesville.
After Trump purchased the winery, he converted the manor house into a boutique hotel known as the Albemarle Estate at Trump Winery. Inside the hotel, rooms come with Trump-branded slippers; a miniature Trump chocolate bar in the shape of a gold brick rests by the pillow. In the downstairs library, the books skew conservative, with volumes by Bill O’Reilly and Dinesh D’Souza.
Some of the workers involved in renovating the manor house were also undocumented — members of a roving group of Trump Organization stonemasons called “Los Picapiedra,” or “The Flintstones,” by other Spanish-speaking Trump employees.
Maids who cleaned the rooms and landscapers who tended the manicured gardens — “inspired by Palladio’s Villa Rotunda in Vicenza, Italy,” according to a brochure — also did not have legal status, according to former workers.
Legally, the wine is manufactured by the Eric Trump Wine Manufacturing Company, of which Eric Trump is president. But the president owns the land under the winery, which produces rental income — between $300,000 and $3 million in 2018, according to his financial disclosures. He also owns the Albemarle hotel on the property, which took in $1.14 million in revenue in 2018.
Miranda was officially employed by a Trump Organization entity called Trump Vineyard Estates LLC, according to Miranda’s paychecks.
Miranda first joined the winery under its previous owner and then was hired by Trump in 2013, using fake documents he had purchased for $120.
“The papers one uses, they know it’s something illegal,” Miranda said. “The owner knows. The winemaker knows.”
Miranda said a longtime vineyard field supervisor who is no longer with the company was also undocumented and knew many employee working for him were in the same situation. Other managers helped fill out applications for employees without legal status, Miranda said.
Miranda earned $15.75 per hour and often worked 60-hour weeks during the harvest — without higher overtime pay because of an exemption for agricultural workers in overtime laws. With that, plus odd jobs repairing his neighbors’ appliances and any lathe work he could find, he supported his wife and 11-year-old son. For a stretch in the late summer, he would wake up at 2 a.m. and work under floodlights. Some delicate grapes have to be picked in the dark before the sun shrinks them.
“It’s the hardest time of the year,” he said.
While Miranda was disgusted by the president’s rhetoric about illegal immigration, he was terrified about losing his job. At the winery, he received holidays off, plus two weeks per year of paid vacation, 48 hours of sick pay and holidays off.
The most crucial benefit was the health insurance the company provided. Pinched nerves in his back had nearly immobilized him during different stretches this year and sent him repeatedly to the hospital. He is now taking oxycodone, an opioid, to ease what he describes as “unbearable pain.” At other wineries, he said, he most likely couldn’t get such benefits.
“He’s got me captive because I’m illegal,” he said in August, referring to the president. “He can say whatever he wants.”
For months this year he worried that his time was running out. He was friends with some of the other immigrant workers that Trump had fired elsewhere. He couldn’t come up with any reason the winery staff wouldn’t be fired except that if it had happened, the season’s wine production might be lost.
He discreetly inquired at other wineries about jobs, without success.
By December, the Mexican seasonal workers had returned home, and the skeleton staff — including Miranda and the second employee — had begun the winter maintenance work.
They began to think it was possible they might not be fired after all. During Eric Trump’s holiday visit, he had nothing but kind words for the staff.
“He gave me his hand,” Miranda said in an interview in early December, remembering his raffle winner’s handshake with Trump, who treated him as a valued part of the team. “Eric is like a co-worker,” Miranda said then.
Then, in the three-minute conversation Monday, it was over.
Miranda said he felt like the president saw him as an embarrassment to be eliminated before the 2020 campaign heated up.