How Workers Became Criminals Overnight

By Sarah Bronwen Horton, author of They Leave Their Kidneys in the Fields: Illness, Injury, and Illegality among U.S. Farmworkers

A phrase tucked into President Trump’s January 25 immigration executive order makes millions of undocumented workers into wanted criminals. The order states that anyone who has engaged in “willful misrepresentation in connection with any official matter or application before a governmental agency” is a priority for removal. Chillingly, this phrase can apply to any undocumented immigrant who presents fake work authorization papers and signs a government form—the I-9—, which is required to apply for a job. With the stroke of a pen, President Trump has transformed 8 million undocumented workers—5% of our workforce—into deportable “criminal aliens.”

In industries like agriculture, federal immigration enforcement and the prospect of workplace raids already depress working conditions and enable workplace abuses. By transforming undocumented workers into criminals, Trump’s executive order further jeopardizes their working conditions. It tips the scale even further in employers’ favor by allowing them to reap the benefits of a workforce fearful of being implicated in fraud.

The irony is that a close examination of undocumented immigrants’ workplace conditions shatters the myth that they are “identity thieves.” It is no secret that in industries dependent upon undocumented labor, many supervisors collude with their workers to ensure they are hired. Yet in farm work—an industry that employs the most vulnerable workers—some supervisors go so far as to make workers’ employment conditional upon their working the valid documents of supervisors’ own friends and family.” In They Leave Their Kidneys in the Fields, I describe the way that labor supervisors themselves have learned to profit from this arrangement, even as they make their friends and family money.

Employers have a great deal to gain from engaging in document fraud. There is evidence that supervisors gave workers work authorization documents in several of the massive workplace raids at the end of the Bush era—at Pilgrim’s Pride and Agriprocessors, Inc. in 2008. By masking the identities of their undocumented workers, supervisors are able to disguise the presence of “illegal” workers and hide the crime of their hire.

President Trump’s executive order is but the latest in a series of policies since the 1990s that conflate hard-working immigrants with “criminal” scourges. Yet in reality, employers—along with the private prison companies who helped finance Trump’s campaign—reap tremendous profit from undocumented workers’ vulnerability. I wrote my book in large part to show how such criminalization has undermined working conditions for immigrants and those who work alongside them. If President Trump uses his executive order to target undocumented workers for the mere “crime” of working, this would be a gross miscarriage of justice indeed.


Sarah Bronwen Horton is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado, Denver. Her work was recently featured in an interview on Colorado Public Radio. Learn more at http://www.sarahbhorton.com/.