Mexican immigrant Hugo Balbuena would like to challenge Donald Trump to walk a mile in his wet shoes.
"I'd like to offer Trump $30 to stand outside at the car wash all day, washing cars in zero-degree weather, wearing my wet clothes and my shoes. Then tell me at the end of the day: Is that fair?" the 27-year-old undocumented immigrant told me, referring to the conditions of his former job at a New Jersey car wash.
Actually, Trump doesn't need to answer that question. A federal lawsuit already did. The upshot: Not fair.
The U.S. District Court for Southern District of New York recently approved a settlement of $1.65 million paid out to 18 Latino workers as compensation for years of toil in abusive conditions, earning far less than minimum wage and no overtime. In the settlement, the car wash owner denied wrongdoing but agreed to pay full damages for all wages owed, plus penalties and interest. That came out to an average check of $91,000 for each former employee.
The settlement provided justice for 18 low-wage workers, but also offers compelling evidence that Trump's narrative about undocumented immigrants is backwards. In many cases, it's the economy that mooches off immigrants, not the other way around.
"Trump talks a lot about Mexicans, and treats us like garbage. But we came here to work and have a better life," says Hugo, whose last name was changed to protect his family's identity in Mexico. "We work harder and earn less than Americans. And where does that money go? They profit from our work."
The devil you know
Trump's nasty rhetoric has surfaced anti-immigrant sentiments in a horrible way in the United States, but for many immigrants the situation is nothing new. Trump is only articulating something that many people deal with every day here. And for them, the devil they know is worse than the devil on TV.
Just ask Hugo and his former co-workers at the hand-wash car wash. The man who embodied Trump's disregard for immigrants was an immigrant himself—a Cuban-American who owned four car washes in New York and New Jersey and worked his employees until their hands peeled, according to Hugo.
Hugo, who arrived here from Mexico 10 years ago at the age of 17, worked at the car wash for 10 hours a day, 7 days a week, and with no time off for lunch or breaks. He earned an average of $2- $3 an hour, in a state where the minimum wage is now $8.38. Hugo received no health benefits or sick days. He says he often worked through the winter months with the flu from wearing wet clothes in the freezing cold.
On good days, Hugo said he made upwards of $45. But on bad days—when it rained or snowed, or when the management was in a particularly pissy mood—Hugo says he earned nothing. Actually less than nothing, considering that his morning coffee and cookies set him back about $6, making him poorer at bedtime than when he started the day.
Despite working up to 70 hours a week washing and drying cars, Hugo had to take a second job selling flowers at night just to make rent payments on his shared apartment in New York. On good months, he would have enough extra cash to send a few hundred dollars home to his ailing mother in Mexico. On bad months, he'd have to borrow from a friend to cover rent.
"Working at the car wash was worse than working in the fields in Mexico," says Hugo, who used to cut cane in Mexico, which is about the most backbreaking and exhausting agricultural work there is. "At least in the fields we could stop and rest, and take an hour for lunch in the shade. But at the car wash it was non-stop all day, in wet clothes, with hands peeling. And we had to eat standing up, washing cars with our hands while we ate with our mouths."
Hugo and the other guys at the car wash—most of whom were Dominicans—say they knew their work situation was abusive, but didn't think they could do anything about it.
Hugo said the managers "told us we had to work and be quiet about it, because without papers we had no right to complain and we had nowhere to go."
Even the car wash employees who had legal residency in the U.S. were afraid to speak out and risk losing their jobs, says fellow employee Michel Rodriguez, 29. He says everyone had rent to pay, and nobody had enough economic cushion to go a few weeks without earning money.
"Everyone was afraid to lose their jobs, because it's hard to find work," Rodriguez told me. "We knew we were being abused, but we didn't know how. Nobody knew the law."
Fusion reached out to the head defense lawyer representing the car wash owner, but she did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Undocumented workers do have rights
Attorney Steven Arenson, who represented the car wash workers in their suit, says the law is designed to protect all workers, including undocumented immigrants, from predatory labor practices. He says the settlement, which is record-breaking for the low-pay car-wash industry, is a clear signal that judges will not tolerate abusive labor practices, regardless of immigration status.
"This case sends a very strong message that the American legal system protects workers and protects undocumented workers from wage theft and exploitation," Arenson told me in a phone interview from New York.
The attorney says abusive employers will often try to threaten undocumented workers with deportation, but the courts won't allow employers to get away with it.
"A judge won't let an employer hide behind immigration," Arenson said.
In addition to finally getting justice after a five-year legal battle, the settlement gave the workers savings for the first time in their lives.
"This victory will provide these minimum-wage, immigrant workers with life-changing money," Arenson in announcing their legal victory on June 21.
That's allowed many of the workers to plan ahead for the first time in their lives. One of the plaintiffs is taking his earnings back to the Dominican Republic to open his own auto shop, while Michel Rodriguez, who now drives an Uber, says he plans to use his money to study criminal justice.
Hugo, meanwhile, is thinking about his young daughter. He says he will put his money toward her education so she can have a more legitimate shot at the American Dream than he did.
"I want her to have a very different life from the one I've lived," Hugo told me. "I want her to have her own things. Her own house. Her own business. I want her to have a good life."
She, too, will undoubtedly encounter a few Donald Trumps during her lifetime, but Hugo hopes she'll be strong enough to not let the haters drag her down to their level.
"I want to teach my daughter to never treat people badly just because they have less money than you," Hugo said.