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Marco Rubio's attack on Donald Trump for hiring undocumented Polish workers, explained

At the Republican presidential debate on Thursday, Marco Rubio came out swinging at Donald Trump with a big accusation: that Trump hired unauthorized immigrants from Poland.

"Fined $1 million for hiring Polish workers on one of his projects," Rubio said, urging the audience to look it up on Google. "He did it. That happened."

Rubio is mostly right. It does show up on Google. And it did happen, but Trump didn't pay a $1 million fine — although he did pay an undisclosed sum.

Whether it will actually hurt Trump, a candidate who's consistently gotten away with inconsistencies in his record, is of course another question entirely.

That time Donald Trump hired 200 undocumented immigrants

Donald Trump at a rally. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

For the development of the crown jewel of Trump's real estate empire — the Trump Tower — Trump hired around 200 undocumented Polish immigrants for the first part of the project.

The New York Times, which covered the allegations as they played out in the courts, explained:

In 1980, Mr. Trump did hire around 200 undocumented Polish workers to demolish the Bonwit Teller Building on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan to make way for the Trump Tower.

The workers later sued Mr. Trump, saying that they had been underpaid and mistreated. They said they received $4 to $5 an hour — if that — to work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week.

Mr. Trump blamed any violations on the demolition contractor whom he said he later fired. But a judge ruled that Mr. Trump had indeed withheld about $4 million from the workers.

Fifteen years after the court battle began, one of the laborers involved described the terrible working conditions to the New York Times. "We worked in horrid, terrible conditions," Wojciech Kozak said, noting conditions in which workers were choked by clouds of asbestos dust while wearing no protective equipment. "We were frightened illegal immigrants and did not know enough about our rights."

What's more, Trump's contractor allegedly hired the undocumented laborers to avoid fully paying American laborers. The Times reported:

Demolition Workers Local 95 of the Laborers' International Union of North America had a collective bargaining agreement with the Kaszycki company, of Herkimer, N.Y., requiring it to pay specified wages to union and nonunion workers at the Trump Tower site and to make additional payments for each worker into the local's pension and medical insurance funds.

Wendy E. Sloan and Lewis M. Steel, lawyers for current and retired Local 95 members in the suit, assert that William Kaszycki, owner of the contracting company, hired about 200 Polish immigrants who were not Local 95 members and agreed to pay them $4 to $5 an hour on 12-hour shifts seven days a week.

The Kaszycki company, the plaintiffs said, violated the union's $11-an-hour minimum wage scale and made payments to the local's welfare funds for only 12 to 15 employees. The contractor also failed to pay the 200 Poles their full wages, causing work stoppages and delays.

The litigation was repeatedly delayed due to the deaths of several people involved in the lawsuit and procedural technicalities. But Trump eventually settled out of court, paying an undisclosed sum.

But the facts of the case were never in question: Trump's company really did hire undocumented immigrants to build the Trump Tower. He merely argued he wasn't aware of it, and it wasn't his fault — even after a court ruled against him.

The 1980s case isn't the only time Trump has faced allegations of using undocumented labor. Last year, Antonio Olivo reported for the Washington Post that Trump is apparently using undocumented workers for a luxury hotel project in Washington, DC.

For Trump, these are very serious charges: They undermine one of the main themes of his campaign.

Rubio is trying to undermine Trump's big issue

Marco Rubio at a Houston rally. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Trump launched his campaign on the issue of illegal immigration, claiming in his first campaign speech that Mexican immigrants were "bringing drugs. And they're bringing crime. And they're rapists."

On the debate stage on Thursday, Trump even told the moderators that he alone made immigration a campaign issue: "You wouldn't even be talking and you wouldn't have asked that as the first question if it weren't for me in my opening when I talked about illegal immigration."

Indeed, polls have repeatedly shown that Trump's supporters are very worried about illegal immigration and that Republican voters trust Trump to take care of the issue.

What Rubio is trying to do here, then, is undermine the Trump campaign's big theme. The idea: If Trump has no credibility on immigration, the issue Republican voters trust him on, then how can he have any credibility at all?

Of course, it's hard to predict whether this will work. Trump, after all, is a candidate that has repeatedly gotten away with dishonest claims and lying. And criticisms that he's flip-flopped on health care, abortion, taxes, and whether he likes Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have done apparently nothing to stop his campaign's enormous momentum and major victories in three of four Republican primary elections so far.

Watch: Donald Trump's rise is a scary moment in American politics

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