Meat packing plant workers
Meat packing plant workers in Nebraska. REUTERS/Lane Hickenbottom

President Donald Trump initiated his election campaign in 2015 by wasting no time disparaging the Mexican immigrants entering the U.S., infamously claiming that “When Mexico send its people, they’re not sending their best.” Based on his own policy moves made during the COVID-19 crisis, however, Trump should amend his previous claim and deliver the following words at his next campaign rally: “Let’s face it, Mexico and Central America send us their share of essential workers, and we appreciate it.”

There is no chance President Trump will ever utter those words. Yet, the sentiment expressed in that fantasy of a speech represents a reality shaped by his own presidential actions during this COVID-19 crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed several overlooked strengths and weaknesses of American society. For example, the crisis clearly demonstrated the fragile nature of our economy as we witnessed long lines of cars at food banks only weeks into the lockdown. Soon after what some touted as the best of economic times, we found many of our families living precariously in a paycheck to paycheck situation. The crisis has also starkly revealed poverty’s effect on the health of certain population groups as evidenced by the relatively high COVID-19 mortality rate for African Americans.

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On a more positive note, the crisis has showed us the value of such workers as bus drivers, grocery clerks, delivery drivers, and medical personnel as they continue to brave constant contact with the public and deliver essential services. We can’t imagine life without them.

In the same vein, the crisis has also revealed the essential nature of another group of workers—a group previously labeled by some as a national liability. By virtue of President Trump’s desire to keep the nation’s food supply chain intact, many of the Mexican and Central American immigrant workers toiling in the United States have ironically earned the title of “essential worker.”

During the COVID-19 lockdown, Trump has implemented two key measures exposing the value of Mexican and Central American workers. First, on April 22 he signed an executive order banning immigration into the United States for sixty days, implementing the ban as a way to preserve American jobs during the pandemic. Although critics viewed the ban as an attempt to exploit the crisis by conveniently throwing a bone to his isolationist America First supporters, Trump unashamedly ensured that migrant farm workers were exempted from the ban in order to protect the country’s food supply.

In doing so, he highlighted the valuable role these migrant workers—most from Mexico and Central America—play on a daily basis in helping to feed the United States. Xenophobia notwithstanding, there is no escaping the fact that our crops can’t be picked without these essential personnel.

Trump’s second measure involved the meat packing industry. On April 28, he invoked the Defense Production Act and ordered meatpacking plants to stay open as a means of protecting the food supply. The act, which classifies these plants as critical infrastructure during the national emergency, was invoked as plants for beef, chicken, pork and turkey were closing as a result of their workers falling victim to COVID-19. In fact, on the same day he ordered the plants to remain open, a Smithfield food plant in South Dakota reported that over 800 of its workers had reported positive for COVID-19.

The meatpacking business is well known not only for its grueling work conditions, but also for hiring immigrants workers (up to 30% of their workforce)—many of whom are undocumented—with the majority coming from Mexico and Central America. Meatpacking plants are the go-to places for U.S. immigration raids. In August 2019, for example, immigration officials led a sweep of seven Mississippi plants that resulted in the detention of hundreds of undocumented workers.

By ordering these plants to remain open via the Defense Production Act, Trump all but deemed these workers as expendable in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. However, through this executive action, he also conferred upon them the status of “essential personnel.” That’s right! The same faces representing Trump’s fight against immigration suddenly morphed into representing hard work, economic survival, and our constitutional right to a Big Mac.

This COVID-19 crisis has seen several expressions take their elevated place in our national conversation. Social distancing … flattening the curve … stay-at-home orders … virus hotspot … national stockpile … and essential worker are but a few of these now common terms. But I suggest we also add the term “essential immigrant worker.”

Referring to someone as an “essential immigrant worker” or, in some cases, an “essential undocumented worker” accurately reflects their worth to American society.  This distinction also helps to combat the demeaning attitude that permits politicians to cleverly demagogue our unresolved immigration situation, as well as the anxiety produced by the country’s growing ethnic diversity.

The fantastical notion that President Trump will publicly express his newfound appreciation for Mexican and Central American workers is just that—a fantasy.  But in this case, American citizens should take notice that Trump’s actions speak much louder than his divisive campaign rally words.

Steve Rodriguez is a retired Marine Corps officer and high school teacher who last taught at Olympian High School in Chula Vista.