Chefs busy at work in professional kitchen

At a fast-growing Mexican-American restaurant in the Orlando area, the majority of staff is currently protected by the Deferred Action on Child Arrivals (DACA) program that allows undocumented immigrants to work and study in the United States, an Obama-era protection that the Trump administration has moved to rescind.

“Almost all of our girls [on expo and cashier] are protected by DACA,” says the restaurant’s co-owner, who asked to remain anonymous. “When their status expires we’re going to have to let them go. And if they can’t work, they can’t go to college.”

If a legislative agreement is not reached by Congress by Friday, Jan. 19, not only does the restaurant stand to lose valued team members, just some of the 800,000 DACA recipients nationwide, but it stands to be impacted financially.

Building a strong brand and a dedicated following since opening in 2013 – growing from one food truck to a fleet of three – they are set to move into a brick & mortar location in March 2018, when DACA officially expires by President Trump’s executive order.

More than 800 executives and entrepreneurs have their own economic concerns, enough to sign an open letter to President Trump in August asking him to extend DACA or risk losing $460 billion from the national GDP.

 

Nevertheless, the plan to rescind DACA has been put into motion, something that has led many in the restaurant industry, where immigrants make up roughly 20 percent of the workforce, to consider the effect immigration reform could have on a business’ machinery.

Vikrum Aiyer, head of public policy for Postmates, a Silicon Valley-based retail courier network delivering food from both large chains and locally-owned businesses, was one of the open letters signatories. Small, independent restaurant in areas such as Orlando and Los Angeles are a crucial part of building inclusive, thriving, and sustainable communities, Aiyer says, adding that the Postmates model “very much relies on their economic health and their ability to thrive.”

“We understand that, historically, this country has depended on immigrants. It’s core to this country’s story, and we recognize these individuals are our neighbors, our classmates, our colleagues — and are core to the fabric of our community,” Aiyer says. “We’re trying to unlock these communities so that their local economies and the people within them can flourish.”

Postmates also joined more than a 100 companies in filing an amicus brief, a legal measure to persuade courts on behalf of litigants in one or multiple pending cases, arguing that a DACA rescission would “inflict significant harm on U.S. companies and the entire economy.”  

On Jan. 10, a California federal judge ruled on one of the cases supported in the brief, effectively blocking the rescission of DACA. The initial excitement of DACA recipients, or Dreamers, was tempered by a strong statement made by the Department of Homeland Security, when, less than 24 hours later, the federal government conducted hundreds of pre-dawn raids arresting 21 undocumented immigrants at 7-11 convenience stores across the nation.

modern kitchen and chefs in hotel

Prior to the judicial developments of Jan. 10 and 11, President Trump had given an unexpected vote of confidence toward broader legislative solution, providing a path to undocumented immigrants beyond the DACA program. But in a matter of 48 hours, he had rescinded his support of ambitious immigration reform after controversy surrounding his reported use of a vulgarity referring to African nations and Haiti.

Earlier this week, the Trump administration, employing a rare executive move, asked the Supreme Court to fast track a ruling on the injunction put in place by the California judge.

Now, with a looming deadline to pass a spending bill on Jan. 19, thus avoiding a government shutdown, many employers, restaurateurs included, are wondering what immigration terms congress will agree upon, and the effect it will have on employment in America.

It’s an urgent problem for an independent operation, hinting at broader challenges facing an industry. The National Restaurant Association has called for sweeping immigration reform, citing an insufficient U.S.-born population to fill jobs. The industry will need to accommodate an expected 14-percent growth in workforce demand over the next decade, says the NRA, a period in which the number of citizens aged 16-24, a major demographic for restaurant employees, shows no sign of growth.  

As immigration hardliners and advocates square off in Congress, many believe a path to citizenship for Dreamers will come saddled with conditions such as a bigger budget to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency that conducted the 7-11 raids, as they have been tasked with auditing work authorization forms when illegal immigration is suspected.

In the meantime, restaurateurs are waiting.

Bradford Heap is the executive chef and owner of Wild Standard and SALT in Boulder, Colorado. He says Mexican immigrants, which count for roughly 20 percent of his 75 employees and 78 percent of DACA recipients nationwide, have historically played a crucial role in the American economy.

“I don’t believe this country would run well without a Mexican labor force,” says Heap. “The Mexican immigrants I employ are among the hardest working people I know, and they’re willing to show up on time and put in the work it takes to get the job done–something white Americans are not always willing to do.”

While all of his employees have permanent work authorization, Heap says, he would like to see amnesty for illegal immigrants currently residing in the country, as well as a merit-based immigration system going forward, deporting only proven criminals.

Boston-based immigration lawyer Susan Cohen, of national law firm Mintz Levin, says such a system aligns with ICE detainment and deportation protocols followed under the Obama administration.

“Under Trump, people are being detained for overstaying visas or crossing the border, which are just civil infractions,” Cohen says. “The detainment centers are overflowing right now.”

With 30 years of experience in immigration law, she regards the current environment as “unprecedented.” The resurgence of hardline policies threaten a labor force already stretched thin by current regulations. Cohen says caps on temporary H2B work visas are to blame for the gap between labor needs and the available documented workers in the labor pool. She has represented clients who have succumb to lengthy administrative law proceedings while waiting for quota exceptions on temporary work visas.

“Employers are having trouble, because much of this unskilled labor is work that many American citizens simply don’t want to do,” Cohen says.

While the uncertainty and choppiness of the immigration debate continues, small businesses and their undocumented employees, struggle to weather the emotional storm even as they continue to tread water financially. To preempt the heartache, Heap says he would like to see amnesty for undocumented immigrants, and more law and order applied to immigration process going forward.

“We need to make sure the immigration laws apply to the entire workforce in a realistic way. If you put up a 25 MPH speed limit sign where everyone already drives 45 MPH, and you don’t enforce it, no one’s going to drive 25 MPH,” says Heap. “Immigrants need a clear path, and I believe it can be done without granting citizenship to actual criminals.”  

Cohen says she has long expected legislators to enact mandatory work authorization checks, though they can be subject to fraud. Indeed, on Jan. 9, in the Senate meetings endorsed by President Trump, hardline GOP members of Congress proposed federally-mandated E-Verify, which would mean added costs to employers onboarding new hires.

 

The Department of Homeland Security offers E-Verify system as a free service, but the initial paperwork and tutorial process could amount to an opportunity cost of $3,000 for a company of 50 employees. In lieu of this, small businesses often hire employer agents for a modest fee–around $50 in sign up costs and $10 per new hire.

In Phoenix, Arizona, where E-Verify is mandatory statewide, the Coronado has declared itself a “sanctuary restaurant,” an establishment that welcomes employees and guests of all backgrounds, genders, races and sexual orientations as equals. Co-owner Emily Spetrino says they’ve considered not complying with the mandate, but the resulting fine could be upwards of $6,000 per unverified employee. “The financial risk is too great,” says Petrino. “We’ve already put ourselves out there politically. We’re afraid we could be a target for ICE raids.”

In Sanford, Florida, where E-Verify is not currently mandatory, Josh Oakley the chef/owner of another sanctuary restaurant establishment, Smiling Bison, says the added regulation could represent another threat to the already precarious profit margins of small businesses.

“Since we make everything from scratch and try to source as much farm-to-table as possible, our margins are really slim,” says Oakley. “[A mandatory E-Verify] could really hurt us, especially when we let our employees come and go to pursue other projects.”

His establishment cycles through about 30 different employees every year, allowing some to take hiatus while pursuing other projects.

For the time being, Oakley says workforce retention remains one of the top challenges for the Smiling Bison, further complicated by the young restaurant’s move from Orlando to the quaint downtown of Sanford in 2016. Oakley counts the hard work of immigrants as a boon to his business, regarding a woman from Zimbabwe as one the kitchen’s best current employees.

“We’ve hired plenty of people from what Trump might refer to as ‘shithole countries,’” Oakley says. “More often than not, they’re lovely people with tremendous work ethics. In fact, we wish there were more immigrants in Sanford.”

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Jimmy Sherfey is a freelance journalist based in Orlando, Florida. His first foray into the food and beverage industry was a trial by fire, a dishwasher at an all-you-can-eat BBQ restaurant. Twelve years (and as many service jobs) later, he transitioned to the world of food journalism, zeroing in on the topics of food justice and specialty coffee production. Find him eating pupusas and drinking Kenyan coffee.