The curious case of Donald Trump and illegal Polish workers. Was Rubio right?

Questions are swirling about Trump's use of foreign workers – in New York in the 1980s, and more recently, at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla.

Gary Coronado/Houston Chronicle via AP
Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, listen to the national anthem during the Republican Presidential Primary Debate at the University of Houston, Thursday.

At one point in Thursday night’s Republican debate Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida urged viewers to Google the phrase “Trump Polish workers.”

That seemed curious, a bit like breaking the fourth wall during a reality TV show. Senator Rubio’s explanation was that such a search would reveal that years ago the billionaire real estate developer was fined by the federal government for employing inexpensive construction workers from Poland instead of Americans.

“Look it up . . . You’ll see a million dollars for hiring illegal workers on one of his projects. He did it,” Rubio said.

There’s truth to that charge, though it leaves out some crucial context.

And it seems a theme Rubio is determined to ride. He’s combining the Polish incident with the presence of unauthorized immigrant laborers at Mr. Trump’s D.C. hotel project and the use of foreign help at his Palm Beach club to portray the billionaire as an enemy of US workers.

That’s an attempt to undermine Trump’s appeal to lower-income Republicans and his bona fides on opposition to illegal immigration, both central aspects of the Trump political brand.

“Donald Trump has portrayed himself now consistently as fighting for the working people. And he has a record of sticking it to working people for 35 years,” Rubio said on CBS News Friday morning.

Back to Polish workers. The incident in question occurred around 1980, when Trump hired a contractor to tear down some buildings in midtown Manhattan. They were clearing the site for the eventual erection of the Trump Tower, the mixed-use skyscraper in which Trump and his family live today.

The contractor used unionized US labor. Trump wanted the work done fast, though, so the contractor also hired about 200 undocumented workers from Poland. They were paid little, about $5 per hour off-the-books, and worked long hours with no overtime.

These are facts established via a lawsuit filed by union workers in 1983. They charged that the use of illegal labor had cheated their pension fund of $1 million in contributions.

At trial, Trump said he had no idea his contractor was using the Polish workers. “I really still don’t know that there were illegal aliens,” he testified in 1990.

Legal machinations ensued. Long story short, Trump settled the case in the late 1990s. The amount he paid remains under seal.

There’s no evidence it was actually $1 million, as Rubio said Thursday. Rubio’s charge also left out the part about a middleman hiring the workers.

“Rubio’s statement is partially accurate but missing that context. We rate Rubio’s claim Half True,” concludes PolitiFact in a post by Linda Qui today.

This isn’t Trump’s only worker-related problem. The New York Times on Friday carried a long story, first reported by Reuters, about Trump’s use of foreign workers on short-term visas at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla. Trump has pursued more than 500 such visas, according to federal records examined by the NYT. In that same period 300 Americans have applied for jobs at the club. Only 17 have been hired.

The Mar-a-Lago situation appears to be legal, according to the Times. That might not be the case with Trump’s project to turn the Old Post Office Pavilion on Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington into a hotel.

In July, The Washington Post ran a story indicating that some of the construction workers at the site were undocumented immigrants. Trump has vowed to round up the estimated 12 million immigrants now residing illegally in America, and send them home.

The Rubio campaign now appears determined to get what political advantage it can from publicizing such news items. The Florida senator’s website has collected a list of stories on the subject and posted them on a single page under the headline “Donald Trump Puts American Workers Last.”

To this point, Trump rivals such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas have mostly blasted Trump for being a fake conservative. That hasn’t worked. Whether this attack theme variant will succeed has yet to be seen. But it is aimed more accurately at a core portion of Trump’s supporters. He wins a plurality of lower-educated, blue-collar GOP voters – just the sort of person allegedly hurt by these incidents.

Trump himself says that in many cases, such as at Mar-a-Lago, “you can’t get American people” to do the work he has hired immigrants for. That’s what he told CNN following Thursday night’s debate.

Rubio might also be vulnerable on the immigration issue himself. It’s perhaps a bit risky for him to raise it, given his support for the so-called “Gang of Eight” Senate bill that included a pathway to citizenship for some illegally immigrants.

“Trump was fined for hiring illegal workers 30 yrs ago. Rubio championed amnesty/giving new work permits to 13-30 million of them,” tweeted conservative author Michelle Malkin during Thursday’s debate.

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