Originally Published in The Washington Post.
By JOSHUA PARTLOW and NICK MIROFF AND DAVID A. FAHRENTHOLD| THE WASHINGTON POST
FEB 08, 2019
At his home on the misty slope of Costa Rica’s tallest mountain, Dario Angulo keeps a set of photographs from the years he tended the rolling fairways and clipped greens of a faraway American golf resort.
Angulo learned to drive backhoes and bulldozers, carving water hazards and tee boxes out of former horse pastures in Bedminster, New Jersey, where a famous New Yorker was building a world-class course. Angulo earned $8 an hour, a fraction of what a state-licensed heavy equipment operator would make, with no benefits or overtime pay. But he stayed seven years on the grounds crew, saving enough for a small piece of land and some cattle back home.
Now the 34-year-old lives with his wife and daughters in a sturdy house built by “Trump money,” as he put it, with a porch to watch the sun go down.
It’s a common story in this small town.
Other former employees of President Donald Trump’s company live nearby: men who once raked the sand traps and pushed mowers through thick heat on Trump’s prized golf property – the “Summer White House,” as aides have called it – here his daughter Ivanka got married and where he wants to build a family cemetery.
“Many of us helped him get what he has today,” Angulo said. “This golf course was built by illegals.”
The Washington Post spoke with 16 men and women from Costa Rica and other Latin American countries, including six in Santa Teresa de Cajon, who said they were employed at the Trump National Golf Club Bedminster. All of them said they worked for Trump without legal status – and that their managers knew.
The former employees who still live in New Jersey provided pay slips documenting their work at the Bedminster club. They identified friends and relatives in Costa Rica who also were employed at the course. In Costa Rica, The Post located former workers in two regions who provided detailed accounts of their time at the Bedminster property and shared memorabilia they had kept, such as Trump-branded golf tees, as well as photos of themselves at the club.
The brightly painted homes that line the road in Santa Teresa de Cajon, many paid for by wages earned 4,000 miles away, are the fruits of a long-running pipeline of illegal workers to the president’s course, one that carried far more than a few unauthorized employees who slipped through the cracks.
Soon after Trump broke ground at Bedminster in 2002 with a golden shovel, this village emerged as a wellspring of low-paid labor for the private club, which charges tens of thousands of dollars to join. Over the years, dozens of workers from Costa Rica went north to fill jobs as groundskeepers, housekeepers and dishwashers at Bedminster, former employees said. The club hired others from El Salvador, Mexico and Guatemala who spoke to The Post. Many ended up in the blue-collar borough of Bound Brook, New Jersey, piling into vans before dawn to head to the course each morning.
Their descriptions of Bedminster’s long reliance on illegal workers are bolstered by a newly obtained police report showing that the club’s head of security was told in 2011 about an employee suspected of using false identification papers – the first known documentation of a warning to the Trump Organization about the legal status of a worker.
Other supervisors received similar flags over the years, including Bedminster’s general manager, who was told by a worker from Ecuador several years ago that she entered the country illegally, the employee said.
Eric Trump, a son of the president who runs the Trump Organization along with his brother Donald Trump Jr., declined to comment on the accounts by the former workers. Bedminster managers did not return requests for comment.
The company’s recent purge of unauthorized workers from at least five Trump properties contributes to mounting evidence that the president benefited for years from the work of illegal laborers he now vilifies.
It remains unclear what measures Trump or his company took to avoid hiring such workers, even after he launched a White House bid built around the threat he says they pose to Americans.
Amid Trump’s push for a border wall, there has been little public discussion of how U.S. employers – including the president himself – have generated demand for unlawful workers.
White House officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Eric Trump has said he and other senior Trump Organization executives did not know the company hired illegal workers, noting that the employees used falsified documents.
“We have tens of thousands of employees across our properties and have very strict hiring practices,” the company said in a statement in December. “If any employee submitted false documentation in an attempt to circumvent the law, they will be terminated immediately. We take this issue very seriously.”
Over the years, the network from Costa Rica to Bedminster expanded as workers recruited friends and relatives, some flying to the United States on tourist visas and others paying smugglers thousands of dollars to help them cross the U.S.-Mexico border, former employees said. New hires needed little more than a crudely printed phony green card and a fake Social Security number to land a job, they said.
Some workers described Bedminster as their launchpad to buy homes and start businesses. Others remembered it as grueling labor under bosses who were demanding, even bigoted – and who at times used the workers’ illegal status against them.
After the New York Times in December reported about two housekeepers without legal status who worked at Bedminster, the Trump Organization fired at least 18 employees at five golf courses in New York and New Jersey, part of what Eric Trump has said is “a broad effort” to identify unauthorized workers. An additional undisclosed number were fired from Bedminster, former employees said.
“Our employees are like family, but when presented with fake documents, an employer has little choice,” he told The Post last month.
“This situation is not unique to Trump Organization – it is one that all companies face,” he added. “It demonstrates that our immigration system is severely broken and needs to be fixed immediately.”
As president, his father has repeatedly called for a crackdown on illegal immigration.
“No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America’s political class than illegal immigration,” Trump said during his State of the Union address Tuesday. “Tolerance for illegal immigration is not compassionate – it is cruel.”
But the lax hiring practices at Bedminster and other Trump properties described by former employees – including some who said their supervisors discussed their fake documents – stand in sharp contrast with Trump’s rhetoric.
While other top-tier golf U.S. courses adopted the federal government’s E-Verify system to check the immigration status of potential hires, the Trump Organization is only now planning to implement it throughout its properties – even though then-candidate Donald Trump claimed in 2016 he was using it across his company.
Of 12 Trump golf courses in the United States, three of them – in North Carolina, Southern California, and Doral, Florida – are enrolled in the E-Verify system, according to a federal database. Eric Trump said that “a few” other clubs, including a Trump course in the Bronx, use a private vendor to screen new applicants.
The government has offered employers electronic verification services since 1997 and introduced the E-Verify system in 2007 to allow companies to screen new hires online. Nearly 750,000 U.S. employers are enrolled in the program, according to the latest government figures.
ClubCorp, the nation’s largest operator of private golf and country clubs, has used E-Verify for all new hires since 2012, according to company executives.
Trump last year proposed making the E-Verify program mandatory nationwide, calling it one of his immigration policy priorities.
Employers have an obligation to verify an employee’s eligibility to work in the United States and can face a range of civil and criminal penalties for hiring illegal workers, according to immigration attorneys. When an employee submits documents such as a permanent resident card or Social Security card for employees, employers have a responsibility to examine those documents.
If an employer pays payroll taxes for an employee whose name does not match their Social Security number, the Internal Revenue Service or the Social Security Administration may send the employer what’s called a “no-match” letter.
Such a letter does not trigger any immigration proceedings or require the employer to fire the employee. Instead, it alerts the employer to ask the employee to resolve the problem by correcting the government record, said Anastasia Tonello, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
In Bound Brook, a majority-Hispanic town where many of the area’s blue-collar workers live, the presence of illegal workers on Trump’s staff was widely known, according to people in the community.
“It was far more systematic than two or three housekeepers,” said Joyce Phipps, executive director of Casa de Esperanza, a legal aid organization for immigrants, who said she has had several clients who were Bedminster employees. “It’s been a very open secret.”
Santa Teresa de Cajon is little more than a ribbon of road set amid coffee farms and cattle pastures on the flank of 12,500-foot Mount Chirripo. Young men zip along on dirt bikes, running errands up and down the mountain.
For those growing up here, as elsewhere in Central America, the risky trip north to the United States can mean seed money for a decent life.
Juan Carlos Zuñiga left Santa Teresa to make that journey in 2002. At the U.S.-Mexico border, he said, he scaled a 10-foot fence and jumped into Nogales, Arizona. He bought his first fake documents in Las Vegas – adopting the name Juan Lara – and hopped on a flight to New Jersey.
Zuñiga had a cousin who worked on a horse farm in genteel Bedminster Township. A nearby property needed workers, his cousin told him.
Trump had purchased the 520-acre Lamington Farm, with its brick manor house and rolling horse pastures. The estate was once owned by John DeLorean, an automobile engineer who invented the namesake sports car.
“This is a special place,” Trump told a crowd of some 100 people gathered in October 2002 for the groundbreaking ceremony, according to the Courier News.
At the time, the Newark Star-Ledger reported that Trump was lavishing money on the project, “flying in masons, carpenters, landscapers and bulldozer operators from around the world and housing them on-site.”
Some of the first Costa Ricans hired to build Trump National Golf Club Bedminster – Zuñiga, Angulo, and their Santa Teresa neighbor Abel Mora, among others – remember it as punishing work. They labored from dawn until late evening, seven days a week, raking and hauling mountains of earth moved by heavy machinery and shaping it into golf holes.
“It was rake, rake, rake, the whole day,” Zuñiga said.
There was also seeding, watering, mowing, building the sand traps and driving bulldozers, mini-excavators and loaders – all while they earned about $10 an hour or less, they said.
Around that time, a licensed heavy equipment operator in central New Jersey would have received an average of $51 to $55 per hour in wages and benefits, according to union officials at the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825 in the nearby town of Springfield.
As the golf course took shape, more hands were needed. Bosses told Zuñiga and his friends to bring workers. The town of Santa Teresa answered the call.
Mariano Quesada, an early greenskeeper at the club from the village, rented out a duplex in Bound Brook to several other Costa Ricans. His wife, Angela, said she would wake up before dawn to cook breakfasts and lunches for as many as 22 people on the Bedminster maintenance staff.
The laborers were coming not only from Santa Teresa de Cajon, but also from other parts of Costa Rica and around Latin America. Before long, so many were working on the course – more than 100, by workers’ estimates – that Zuñiga’s cousin began charging workers for rides to Bedminster. He had two vans in circulation morning and night. When that wasn’t enough, he bought a used school bus, Zuñiga said.
“For me, moving to the U.S. wasn’t a very drastic change,” said Mauricio Garro, 36, who worked in maintenance at the golf course for five years until he returned to Santa Teresa in 2010. “My whole town practically lived there.”
To get a job at Trump National, the Costa Ricans – as well as Guatemalans, Salvadorans and Mexicans who were employed by the club – would purchase fake green cards and Social Security numbers in Bound Brook and neighboring towns.
These were easy to come by. Sandra Diaz, a housekeeper from Poas de Aserri, Costa Rica, got photos taken at Walgreens and paid a friend of hers $50 for fake papers. Ana Vasquez, an immigrant from El Salvador who bused tables in the club’s restaurant, went to neighboring Plainfield to buy her phony Social Security card alias, “Yohana Pineda.”
Before going to her interview, Vasquez asked a friend if the club would hire people who used fake documents.
“I thought, ‘This is a place with a very famous owner,’ ” she recalled. “My friend said there was nothing to worry about. She told me, ‘They don’t care.'”
Several former workers said that managers in housekeeping and maintenance were well aware their documents were fraudulent – but hired them anyway. Housekeeper Gilberta Dominguez said her manager filled out her application in 2016 because she didn’t speak English.
“And I said, ‘Listen, we don’t have good papers,’ ” Dominguez, of Oaxaca, Mexico, recalled telling her manager. “She said, ‘It doesn’t matter; don’t talk about that.’ “
In 2005, Zuñiga said, he decided that it was better to be working at Bedminster under his own name in case he got hurt on the job. He purchased new fake documents and turned those in to his supervisors. Juan Lara was suddenly Juan Carlos Zuñiga. His bosses didn’t flinch, he said.
“They were making jokes about the Social Security cards in the office, because they looked so fake,” he recalled. “They would joke that my name was Juan Lara at the beginning.”
In 2011, Hank Protinsky, then the club’s head of security, was warned by local police that an employee could be using fake papers, according to a police report obtained by The Post through a public records request.
The worker’s status was discovered when the Bedminster Township Police Department investigated a hit-and-run accident on the course and questioned a man identified as the driver: a club employee working under the name Reinaldo Villareal.
When Officer Thomas Polito spoke to Villareal, he “told me that his real name was Fredis Otero and that he was working under a false name and social security numbers,” Polito wrote.
Otero, a native of Colombia, told police that he had arrived in the United States as a cabin steward on a cruise ship and walked off the ship when it docked in Miami in 2010. He obtained a three-month vacation visa, then bought a fake Social Security card and U.S. permanent resident card and used them to get hired at Trump’s course, according to the report.
Polito wrote in the police report that he told Protinsky his employee “may be using a false name and government documentation.”
The head of security gave the police officer a copy of Villareal’s employment application, which showed that while his resident card listed his first name as “Reynaldo,” his application spelled it “Reinaldo,” the report said.
Police arrested Otero and contacted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement about his case.
It is unclear if Otero, who could not be reached for comment, was deported. The Trump Organization did not respond to a request for comment. Protinsky – who has since left the course – could not be reached for comment.
Other former workers said their jobs at Bedminster, along with Trump’s popularity with local law enforcement agencies, afforded them a degree of protection despite their immigration status.
One former kitchen staffer from Ecuador still carries an ID card with her name and photo that says she is a “supporter” of a foundation that provides scholarships to the children of New Jersey State Police. She said she got the card at a golf tournament the charity held at Bedminster. The foundation did not respond to a request for comment.
At times, rifts between legal employees and those without papers were occasionally laid bare in front of the managers.
In mid-2015, Emma Torres, a housekeeper from Ecuador, said she complained to the club’s general manager, David Schutzenhofer, about a supervisor who blocked her from taking a lunch break and frequently berated her for not speaking English.
During the meeting, she said Schutzenhofer asked her if she was going to file a complaint with the state labor department. Torres told him that would be impossible.
“I told him no, because I didn’t have papers,” she said.
Trump had recently launched his presidential campaign, vowing to build a border wall. Torres said she asked Schutzenhofer why Trump spoke so harshly about immigrants.
“This is just politics,” he said.
Torres stayed at the club but was reassigned to the kitchen.
The Post reached out to Schutzenhofer and two dozen current and former managers at Bedminster – including those identified by the workers as their supervisors – and asked if they were aware that the club employed people without legal status. Most either declined to comment or did not respond.
One former groundskeeping manager responded only by sending The Post an animated image of Trump saying, “I have great relationships with the Mexican people.”
Another former manager, who confirmed working closely with both Zuñiga and Garro, said, “I think everyone was in the dark. We all assumed they were legal.” That manager spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve relationships in the golf industry.
Ed Russo, an environmental consultant who worked on the Bedminster project and was remembered by one of the Costa Ricans as a supervisor, declined to address whether he was aware illegal workers were hired for the project.
“Are you documented?” Russo asked a reporter. “You’re not going to get anything from me.”
Over the years, Trump family members have emphasized their deep involvement in properties that carry their name.
“People think of Trump as being just a face, just a brand,” Eric Trump said in a 2011 promotional video about the company’s golf courses. “We design every single tee, every fairway. . . . We pick the carpets. We pick the chandeliers. There is not one element of these clubhouses which we don’t know about it. You name it -we’re involved.”
Donald Trump himself was an imperious but mostly distant figure for the illegal workers, who in the early years at Bedminster would be told to make themselves scarce when “the big boss” would arrive by helicopter.
Groundskeepers would stay inside a converted horse barn used to store tools and machinery or go into the woods to wait, they said.
“When he arrived, we had to hide,” said Alan Mora, a former greenskeeper who helped build the driving range and who now works as a security guard at a resort hotel in Santa Teresa. “We had to be invisible.”
On days Trump dined in the club’s restaurant, Vasquez said she and five other Spanish-speaking women working illegally at the club in 2004 and 2005 were sent upstairs by their supervisor to fold napkins and buff the glassware, and kept out of sight.
“They would tell us it was because the restaurant was hosting an important event, and only the workers who could speak English could be there,” she said.
Trump was also known for his occasional largesse. The housekeepers who cleaned his villa noted neat stacks of $20, $50 and $100 bills on his bedside table, which Trump would dole out as tips as he golfed or strolled the grounds. He would sometimes warmly greet employees and compliment them as he inspected their work.
Trump’s election did not bring any added scrutiny to his workers’ immigration status, former employees said. Torres said superiors kept her name and those of other workers without legal status off a list of people to be vetted by the Secret Service before a Trump visit to the club in 2016.
Another former employee who arrived in the United States in 2018 on a tourist visa and worked as a groundskeeper said his manager only asked for his nationality in preparation for a Trump visit. He told him that he was from Costa Rica.
Groundskeepers were given a general warning not to bring drugs, weapons or explosives to work, a request he found amusing.
“It was very light security, very normal,” said the employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he hopes to return to the United States. “Here in Costa Rica, to enter someone’s home, they would ask for more. They want you to identify yourself. Over there, that didn’t happen.”
The long-standing presence of unauthorized workers at Bedminster created a culture in which employees were stratified by immigration status and English-language proficiency, former employees said.
At the top were the professional staff and senior managers who spoke little or no Spanish. Below them were mid-level supervisors who were often immigrants themselves and able to converse in both languages.
Many without legal status told The Post they did not receive health benefits, while they heard other colleagues did.
Groundskeepers would work through storms, snow and glaring sun with little protection.
One rainy day in 2007, Zuñiga said, he and other greenskeepers staged a one-day strike, refusing to leave a maintenance building until supervisors agreed to pay them for sick days.
The maintenance manager eventually conceded and offered rain jackets to the greenskeepers. Some of the longer-serving staff members were offered health insurance, too.
“This was the first protest by the Hispanics,” Zuñiga said.
Franklin Mora, who quit after a year on the grounds crew, said that his manager would mock his limited English and spoke harshly to the Hispanic employees. The manager required them to set their mowers at a pace that required them to jog to keep up in a fashion he viewed as humiliating.
“They treated us like slaves,” he said.
The experience left Mora so bitter he said he wouldn’t return to the United States even as a tourist.
Still, others remain hopeful they will get to go back to Bedminster as part of a seasonal workforce that swells every spring.
In Santa Teresa de Cajon, some former Trump workers recall their New Jersey years as a rite of passage – not unlike military service or leaving home for college. They learned to cook their own meals, clean up after themselves, and endure freezing winters and homesickness.
“The golf course is the best thing that has happened in my life,” said Angulo, who now earns his living raising cattle.
He said he didn’t care much for Bound Brook or other U.S. cities he visited, but he loved tending to the golf course and dreams of going back one day to see the place “that taught me how to work hard.”
This time, he said, he would like to go as a tourist.
Alice Crites and Jonathan O’Connell in Washington, Lori Rozsa in West Palm Beach, Fla., and Kim Kavin in Bedminster, N.J., contributed to this report