New Immigration Rules Could Empty Local Kitchens

Tough rules leave restaurants looking for cooks with green cards

On top of sales and profits, business owners in certain industries may soon face additional, more sleuthlike priorities—digging up government records, investigating employees' identification paper trails and even firing large numbers of workers.

Since the Department of Homeland Security last month announced new immigration enforcement rules that would require employers to fire workers who can't clarify discrepancies between their identity information and Social Security records within 90 days, business groups, labor unions and human rights organizations have lined up in opposition, and one coalition filed a lawsuit now pending in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. The new regulations, which would toughen a little-enforced 1986 law by subjecting employers to fines and criminal prosecution for hiring illegal workers, have been blocked by an injunction through October 10.

Opponents view the government crackdown as a piecemeal attempt to appease anti-illegal immigrant conservatives after a massive immigration overhaul failed in Congress in the spring.

"Agencies are taking it upon themselves to try to figure out a plan. We'd all hoped and waited for a solution, and now people are reacting because it's at a crisis point," says Jamee Green, executive director of the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association, who returned this week from Washington, D.C., where she was lobbying against the new rule after supporting the failed changes that would have stepped up immigration enforcement while establishing a guest worker program and a path to legalization for those already here. "You see it in Farmers Branch and Irving. We're seeing it pop up all over," she adds, referring to recent efforts to deport illegal immigrants in those communities.

The latest push to penalize employers would put an unfair and impractical burden on restaurant owners, Green says. Not only would errors and inaccuracies in the Social Security Administration's records cause American citizens to lose their jobs based on discrepancies, but restaurants would be forced to slash their staffs and face challenges finding replacements in an already tight labor market.

Green refutes claims by some congressmen and others that business interests merely want to maintain a steady source of cheap labor. "Restaurants pay above minimum wage. The problem we have isn't cheap labor, it's this unskilled labor market," she says. "We need people willing to work in entry-level positions, and right now in America those are the hardest jobs to fill. If we do what the government's asking us to do, you're going to see a crisis in entry-level positions across the country."

Illegal immigrants account for around 12 percent of workers in food preparation occupations nationwide, according to data from the Pew Hispanic Center. The figure is likely higher in border states such as Texas with higher Latino immigrant populations.

The government's new rule put Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in an awkward position. After months of lauding the crucial contributions of illegal immigrants to the economy, he acknowledged in August when he announced the new enforcement measures that they would likely harm a number of American industries.

Domingo Garcia, an immigrant advocate and former Texas state representative, says that's exactly why the government must enact wholesale, not piecemeal, changes. "We have one of the lowest unemployment rates in Texas history. Employers are having a hard time getting people to work in meat-packing plants, service jobs, construction, and it's ridiculous to believe that some sectors of the economy are going to shut down because there's not people to do those jobs," he says. "That's why we need comprehensive reform that realizes economic needs and at the same time respects workers' human rights."

When one local restaurant owner received a notice in August about the new enforcement tactic, he was aware that a large number of his workers were immigrants. But what he found out next shocked him.

He went to one of his kitchen managers, someone who has worked for him for seven years, and asked how they could plan for the new requirements. "I said, 'So what are we looking at, somewhere between two and four people per kitchen?'" The manager laughed nervously and replied that it would be easier to say who was here legally. "He named two people in the kitchen who were legal, and he was not one of them." The owner, who has hundreds of employees and thousands of patrons each week, had no idea. As required by law, he had each worker's Social Security number and identification on file. If he has to fire such a large number of people, he's at a loss for how he would replace them.

"I can't imagine being without them. They're the hardest-working people I've ever known," he says. "It would be great if we had other people to hire, but we hire based on the best applications we get. We're not out looking for illegal immigrants to hire; we hire them because that's who's applying." When he first went into business more than 30 years ago, the owner says, high school and college students came looking for work in his kitchens. Not anymore. "They started getting better jobs," he recalls.

Of between 400 and 500 kitchen staffers, dishwashers and busers, roughly a third are here illegally, he figures. Firing them would mean losing the money it took to train them. "We're either gonna have to eat that cost or pass it on to our guests," he says.

"Even if we were prepared for this, there's no pool of labor that wants these jobs, or who can perform like they do," he says. And then he adds something that echoes Chertoff's ambivalent announcement of the new crackdown. "And that's just one issue. What about agriculture and food—who picks it? Prices will go up and we'll get hit again. And then, how can new restaurants open up? Who does the construction?"

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