Kojo and Tom Sherwood chat with D.C. Council Member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large)
Restaurant patrons need only look up from their table to understand how much of their night out depends on immigrant labor. In an industry where one in 10 workers is an undocumented immigrant, these workers are pouring our water, preparing our meals and washing our dishes. Kojo explores where these workers fit into America’s food service industry and asks what immigration reform could mean for workers, restaurant owners and diners.
- Andy Shallal Owner of Busboys and Poets, Iraqi American, peace activist, artist, and co-founder of The Peace Cafe.
- Madeleine Sumption senior policy analyst, Migration Policy Institute
- Saru Jayaraman co-founder and co-director, Restaurant Opportunities Center United; author, Behind the Kitchen Door
- Angelo Amador Vice President, Labor and Workforce Policy, National Restaurant Association.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. An immigration debate is heating up on Capitol Hill and for members of Congress it could be an opportunity to gain political points or win over the Hispanic vote.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut the real consequences of any immigration policy are going to be far more apparent at the nearest restaurant. In the back of the house, immigrant workers are often the fuel that keep kitchens going. They might be tossing your organic green salad, pan searing your scallops or washing keno off from your dishes.
MR. KOJO NNAMDINew immigration policy could take on many forms but to restaurant owners it could mean the solution to the biggest uncertainty in their business plan, knowing whether their employees have legal status or not. And for their workers, a change in policy might just mean getting to work without fear of harassment or deportation.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to talk about this is Angelo Amador. He is a vice president of Labor and Workforce Policy at the National Restaurant Association. Angelo Amador, thank you for joining us.
MR. ANGELO AMADORThank you very much.
NNAMDIMadeleine Sumption is a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. Madeleine Sumption, thank you for joining us.
MS. MADELEINE SUMPTIONThank you.
NNAMDIAnd Andy Shallal is here, he needs no introduction. Mr. Andy Shallal is an activist and owner of Busboys and Poets. Andy Shallal, always a pleasure. Good to see you.
MR. ANDY SHALLALIt's a pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIJoining us from studios from UC-Berkley Journalism School is Saru Jayaraman. She is a cofounder and co-director of Restaurant Opportunity Center United, which aims to improve working conditions in restaurants. She is also director of the Food and Labor Center at UC-Berkley and author of a new book called, "Behind the Kitchen Door." Saru Jayaraman, thank you for joining us.
MS. SARU JAYARAMANThank you.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation yourself, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Do you care if your favorite restaurant hires undocumented immigrants or not? 800-433-8850, you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Angelo, menus today list the ingredients that are local and organic. What's less obvious though are the people who are making the food? Where do immigrants fit into the landscape of the restaurant industry?
AMADORWell, minorities in general are a big part of the restaurant industry. I mean, it's a place where a lot of people can get an easy first job and start their career there. And even if you're not fluent in the English language, you know, you can come in and as you work your way up in the system start in the back of the house and work your way up.
AMADORSo we have immigrants at all levels, you know, we have a great level of ownership particularly within the Hispanic community is growing between 2007 and 2017, 80 percent growth in Hispanic ownership of restaurants. So you have them at the back of the house and you have now ownership and you have also the largest number of Hispanic and minority managers of any other industry. So there are all levels in our industry.
NNAMDIAndy Shallal, D.C. now has a vibrant restaurant scene of which you are a central part. We've got celebrity chefs, we've got new restaurants seeming to open every week. How important to that expansion is immigrant workers?
SHALLALIt's very, very important obviously. I think, like Angelo said, I think for many, many years these were the invisible people behind the kitchen doors that Saru writes about. there are people that often times are ignored and, you know, frequently when we think of restaurants we think of the food, how the chickens are treated, how the cows are treated, where the eggs come from. But we rarely think about the workers and I think this is a sea change that's taking shape right now.
NNAMDIMadeleine, in the agricultural industry it's almost exclusively immigrant workers, so why is it that restaurants tend to have a more diverse mix of American and immigrant workers?
SUMPTIONWell, agricultural is really an extreme case when it comes to the number of immigrant workers and most occupations actually have a much lower share. We have around 15 percent of the workforce as a whole as immigrants and that's slightly higher in the restaurant industry.
SUMPTIONBut still not more 20 percent or so depending on what you look at. And one of the reasons for that is that these jobs are somewhat more desirable. A lot of them pay more than jobs in agriculture and they're also much more least likely to be located in cities which is where unemployed people who are looking for jobs tend to be. So it's somewhat easier for employers to recruit domestic workers in the restaurant industry than it is in agriculture.
NNAMDISaru, there are many different positions in restaurants, busers, hostesses, servers, where do immigrants tend to fit in?
JAYARAMANUnfortunately, I have to differ a little bit with Madeleine. The restaurant industry right now is one of the largest and fastest growing industries for sure. It's actually, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, the lowest paying industry in America. It just came out actually from the U.S. Department, seven of the 10 lowest paying jobs in America are restaurant jobs, actually lower than farm worker jobs.
JAYARAMANAnd that is due to the fact that the minimum wage, it's the largest employer of minimum wage workers as low as $2.13 which is the federal minimum wage for tipped workers. And immigrants largely fill the lowest paying jobs. Statistically this is true, so we've surveyed more than 7,000 restaurant workers in New York City.
JAYARAMANWe found a $4.00, I'm sorry, in the country actually, in 12 cities nationwide and we found a $4.00 wage gap between white workers and workers of color and immigrants in particular because they are largely concentrated in what we call back of the house jobs, the lowest paying jobs.
JAYARAMANIn very causal restaurants as servers and busers, in fast food restaurants, in all kinds of restaurants in the back of the house as dishwashers and cooks, lower level cooks and so immigrants unfortunately have faced a lot of racism and discrimination in the industry, have not been able to move up the ladder to livable wage jobs. 70 percent...
NNAMDIWell, allow me to interrupt for a second. To what extent, Saru, does language influence or dictate what jobs these immigrants can get in restaurants?
JAYARAMANYes, it's a great, great question because back in 2009 we published a report called the Great Service Divide, where we sent 200 pairs of white and immigrant applicants with the exact same resumes. Actually, the immigrants with a slightly better resume in to fine dining restaurants to see who would get hired and with equal language ability, you know, English speaking ability.
JAYARAMANIn fact, we had the white workers have a stronger European accent and found that white workers had twice the chance even when immigrant workers spoke perfect English, of getting one of these livable wage wait staff and bartending jobs in a fine dining restaurant as opposed to
JAYARAMANAn immigrant accent, a person of color accent, accent from the Third World was actually a detractor whereas an accent from Europe was actually a bonus. People were more likely to get a job with a European accent. So I think this idea of language, we've been able to just disprove that completely because even when immigrants speak very, very fluent English they're still not able to get the best jobs in the industry and, yes, there are exceptions.
JAYARAMANAndy is somebody who promotes immigrant workers, you know, we've got about 100 employers around the country who do the right thing and really see the benefit in promoting to livable wage positions, promoting immigrants from the back of the house to the front.
JAYARAMANAnd they see real, they reap the benefits, less turnover, increased productivity, increased profitability but for the most, for most workers, for the vast majority of immigrant workers they are stuck with very little mobility in the lowest paying jobs in the industry and that's just statistically true.
NNAMDIIt's a "Food Wednesday" conversation on immigrants and restaurants. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Are you an immigrant restaurant worker or have you worked alongside immigrants in restaurants? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Andy Shallal is a restaurant owner, how often do you see American workers apply for the kinds of positions that immigrants typically fill in restaurants?
SHALLALWell, that word typically I think is changing, you know, so I think we had traditionally seen a lot of immigrants, new immigrants, apply for jobs in the back of the house. But I think they also understand that there are spaces they can go to, some restaurants they can go to where they can actually have a chance at applying in front of the house.
SHALLALSome of them start in the back and move quickly to the front of the house. So it's, I think we get a, here at least in the Washington metropolitan area, we get a very large mix of people applying for all positions in all parts of the restaurant.
NNAMDIIs that necessarily true around the nation, Saru?
JAYARAMANNo, unfortunately, like I said there's this $4.00 wage gap between white workers and workers of color. And now we've actually replicated that study with 200 pairs not just in New York but in Detroit, New Orleans, Chicago. We found the same thing in city after city, incredible segregation by race between the livable wage positions, wait staff and bartending positions, the buser, the runner.
JAYARAMANYou know, you walk into fine dining restaurant, you know most, not Andy's, I totally agree with Andy that are places increasingly that see the value in promoting from within. Not every, but for most fine dining restaurants you walk into and you see who is the wait staff and who's cleaning your table, who's brining you the bread and then you take a peek into the kitchen, I guarantee you you're going to see this kind of darker skin the farther back you go and immigrant workers holding lower level positions regardless of their language ability and even regardless of their status.
JAYARAMANWe have a number of workers, you know, I have seen, you know, documented immigrant workers as busers, runners unable to move up to server positions and frankly I've seen undocumented European workers as management. And so I think, you know, race plays a huge factor in this.
JAYARAMANI think one of the pieces that's underlying this immigration debate that's not really being talked about is race and the fact that, you know, immigrant workers especially immigrant workers of color are the base of our economy and yet there is an unwillingness to allow people to actually have a dignified life, move up to a livable wage position with benefits even when they're documented.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us that's the voice of Saru Jayaraman. She is cofounder and co-director of Restaurant Opportunity Center United which aims to improve working conditions in restaurants. She joins us from studios at UC-Berkley Journalism School.
NNAMDIJoining us in our Washington studios, Andy Shallal. He is an activist and owner of Busboys and Poets. Madeleine Sumption is a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute and Angelo Amador is vice president of Labor and Workforce Policy at the National Restaurant Association. Angelo, over on Capitol Hill, lawmakers say they could propose new immigration reform as early as this week. What kind of certainty does current immigration policy offer restaurant owners?
AMADORWell, right now, I mean, right now the immigration system is completely broke and, I mean, we wouldn't have 11 million undocumented individuals in the United States unless it was because the system happens to be broken. So first and foremost, we need to do something with those that are here and I hope that whichever program comes out with legislation wise, takes care of a great number of those.
AMADORThen we also need to have a better system for employment verification. I mean, we know that they're undocumented in the restaurant industry but, you know, as we'd like to say they're not undocumented. They have very good documents, what they do not have is a visa to be in the United States. So we have to do something about that as well.
AMADORAnd, you know, we hope that this is the year that, you know, bipartisan approach to be able to move it forward. I do want to clarify one thing, you know, there's nobody in our industry making $2.13 an hour. The average, the median wage for an entry level server $16 and the median for more senior ones is $22 an hour. And the minimum wage is $7.25 at least federally.
JAYARAMANYes, that's not actually Department of Labor data.
NNAMDIAllow me to clarify, but wait a minute, allow me to clarify a technicality first. Technically they can be paid $2.13 an hour if they are also making tips, you're saying.
AMADORThe way the tips they have to make at least $7.25 and if they do not make that amount, and that's a federal -- many states have larger wages, but I think we need to go back -- what I think we all agree and I think Saru agrees as well, we do need to do something about the undocumented population workers are not in this country and I think there is agreement on that and we should move forward with that.
NNAMDIWhich brings me back to both Saru and Andy. Andy, you are associated with Left leaning political beliefs. Why would immigration reform be something that you and a conservative restaurant owner might agree on?
SHALLALWell, I don't consider myself Left leaning as much as maybe sensible leaning. I think the idea that this immigration reform bill that's being put forward is going to solve the problem is a real stretch. This is basically window dressing that's being put forward by the politicians, this Gang of Eight that is putting this legislation together.
SHALLALI talked to my workers. I actually had them sit down when I knew that I was going to be on the show. I did a focus group. Brought 50 immigrant workers from my restaurant and sat them down to discuss with them, what would they like to see? What brought them to this country to begin with? And they had some real stories of real human beings. They all came here for better opportunities. They said, please tell the world, we are not criminals. We pay our taxes. We actually work really hard. We are just looking for a better way to live.
SHALLALLargely, I think a lot of the reasons why people move to this country and have to because of the conditions that are in their own countries. We have supported oligarchies all over South America, all over Central America that has created very, very difficult living and working conditions for people in those parts of the world. And therefore we are responsible at some level to allow them to come here and be able to do what every human being wants to do. They want to live, they want to be able to support their families. They want to have a roof over their heads, all of these things that we all aspire for as human beings, not just Americans.
NNAMDIYou know, Madeleine, much of the immigration discussion focuses on workers in agriculture. What would the kind of immigration reform that Congress hopes to rule out, that Andy says looks more like window dressing than anything else, what would that kind of immigration reform mean for immigrant workers in food service industry jobs?
SUMPTIONI think there would be a number of impacts and a lot of it will depend on some of the details about how any bill is written. You know, so far we have broad principles on the table many of which sound quite sensible. So there have been proposals, for example, to allow people who are on temporary visas to move between employers once they're in the United States, something that currently is pretty difficult. There are proposals to allow them eventually to seek permanent residence rather than being sent home after a strictly temporary period. And these are things that make sense.
SUMPTIONAt the same time there are some details that are going to need to be worked out in terms of the conditions of those visas, whether the -- you know, how they get allocated and to whom and whether, you know, that's down in a kind of evidence-based way or, you know, based on arbitrary decisions. There'll be some really difficult decisions that need to be taken about the number of visas to be allocated. And I think that's something that still provokes a lot of dispute.
NNAMDIYou wanted to say, Andy...
SHALLALYes. As far as the number of visas and allocations, I'm from Iraq originally. There's a lot of Iraqis that were promised visas once the war was over. They were able to come here. In fact, they allocated about 25,000 slots. So far only 7,000 of those slots have been filled. There are 18,000 slots that are not filled. And by the end of this summer that opportunity will be completely closed. They're only able to fill about ten slots a month. So there are people that have been waiting for a long, long time.
SHALLALSo this idea of immigration reform, are they going to have these slots and everything? How are they going to be processed? These are long lines that they have to wait for. They have to hire lawyers and spend a lot of money. They have to come out and pay fines. They have to pay all these supposed back taxes. There's a whole bunch of fees. It's going to create another underclass of people that are going to go back in the shadows and continue to do what they're doing because people need to survive.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation. If you have called, stay on the line. If you haven't yet been forewarned that the lines seem to be tied up already, so you may want to send us an email to email@example.com. You may want to send us a Tweet at kojoshow or you can simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on Food Wednesday about immigrants in restaurants. We're talking with Saru Jayaraman. She is co-founder and co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Center United which aims to improve working conditions in restaurants. She is also director of the Food and Labor Center at UC Berkeley and author of a new book called "Behind the Kitchen Door."
NNAMDIAngelo Amador is vice-president of Labor and Workforce policy at the National Restaurant Association. Madeleine Sumption is a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. And Andy Shallal is an activist and owner of Busboys and Poets. We'll go to the phones and talk with Anne in Alexandria, Va. to get the question that a lot of people ask. Anne, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANNEGood afternoon. Thank you for taking my call, Kojo. My question is, with all the immigrants in the Washington metropolitan area and across the United States, my son had a very difficult time finding a job when he was in high school. What is the percentage -- or are there any statistics on the immigrants taking these lower level positions in restaurants away from say high school kids who also need experience in the workforce? And I'll take the response off the air. Thank you.
NNAMDISaru Jayaraman, can you respond, please?
JAYARAMANSure. Actually the vast majority of restaurant workers in America are not immigrants, as was said earlier by Madeleine. You know, most restaurant workers in America are white and black. And so there isn't any evidence actually of immigrant workers taking away jobs from other workers. In fact, those workers are -- you know, the majority of the -- the vast majority of the industry.
JAYARAMANWhere I think we all agree is that we need an immigration reform that allows these workers to stay and stay in decent living -- you know, with living wages and the opportunity to speak up. Because to the caller, what none of us want to happen is that there is a perverse incentive for employers to hire people who they think will be more willing to accept lower wages or more willing to not speak up when there are problems on the job. We need an immigration reform that allows immigrants, as well, the right to speak up on the job, the right -- and we need other policies that allow everybody across the board livable wages and good benefits.
JAYARAMANOtherwise what happens when your son enters the restaurant industry is that there will be a perverse incentive for the employer to prefer the immigrant worker who they think that, you know, will take lower wages or not complain because immigration policy creates that reverse incentive. So as an example, one of the stories in my book is a woman named Claulia (sp?) Munoz, an immigrant from Mexico who worked at an IHOP in Houston, Texas. Most of the workers in the IHOP, most of the other servers were white women. Claulia was an immigrant worker.
JAYARAMANShe did not -- she earned $2.13 an hour. And while I agree with Angelo that we want these workers to stay, I don't agree that there's nobody earning 2.13, because I know many who did. Claulia earned 2.13. Tips never made up the different between 2.13 and 7.25. And the IHOP actually told Claulia, we will not pay the difference. We will report to the IRS that you're earning 7.25 even when you're earning less. And Claulia, being an immigrant workers felt afraid to complain, afraid to speak up. There was no process for her to do so and she was threatened that, you know, you -- we will report you or will, you know, fire you if you speak up.
JAYARAMANAnd so what you see is a perverse incentive for employers to prefer immigrants only when they think they can treat them worse, pay them worse, not allow them to speak up, threaten them with deportation. We need an immigration reform that allows workers to speak up on the job. And frankly we need other policies like raising the minimum wage that would improve conditions for all workers, immigrants and non-immigrants so that there isn't a perverse incentive to pay this underclass less, so that your son can have a good opportunity to get into the industry as well as the immigrants.
NNAMDIWell, you know, I was going to ask Madeleine Sumption to add what she had to say, but I think I'll ask you to hold for one second because Chris in Fairfax, Va. seems to have a similar issue. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISHi. Good afternoon, everybody. Yeah, I have a 17-year-old son and he's interested in going into the culinary, you know, hotel restaurant business. And, you know, we started our college visits. And actually the one that was actually the best for him was Culinary Institute of America. So, I mean, he's got the grades, he's an Eagle Scout, etcetera, etcetera. Well, one of the prerequisites is that you have to have at least three months of firsthand experience working in a restaurant. So I thought, okay well, how hard can that be? I did it in high school and, you know, you start out by washing dishes, learning the equipment and then you'll become, you know, a line cook, et cetera, et cetera.
CHRISSo, you know, take our house, draw a circle around it for ten miles, go to all the restaurants by quadrant and go through it. We went to everyone here in Fairfax County and they told us to our face it's like they can't hire him, you know. Well, why? I mean, you know, he's a hard worker. You know, he's got -- you know, he's dependable, he has his own transportation. They said, I can't hire him. You know, we prefer immigrants who work less and are -- you know, and frankly...
NNAMDIWill work for less is what I think you were going to say.
NNAMDIYou said, who work less. I think you mean who work for less.
CHRISOh yes, who work less (sic) . And when I said, well, you know, even if he's willing can he work free? Oh no, we can't do that, you know. No internships here. And it's almost like it's the same kind of model that you see -- I mean, I buy IT for the government. And in many instances you find some companies that they prefer foreign-born workers on a visa because if they get out of line or do -- or, you know, don't do what the employer tells them to do, they'll threaten -- you know, revoke their visa.
NNAMDII'd like you to hear both Andy Shallal and Madeleine on that issue. Fist you, Andy.
SHALLALI don't know where you took him to be able to -- to apply that a restaurant would turn it down and would actually tell you that they prefer immigrants. I think if you were to come to my restaurant, for instance, and you say that your son would like to work there for three months so he can get an internship or learn about the job and then move on to go to the CIA, the Culinary Institute of America, I would probably say no as well. I think most restaurants, there's a fairly high learning curve, especially if you're working in the kitchen. And so they're not willing to be able to invest in someone that's going to be leaving them very quickly. So that may be part of the problem. I don't know.
SUMPTIONYeah, I mean, more broadly I would say I think this is probably the most difficult question in the economics of immigration. And it's one that's been debated for some time. And it's part of the reason immigration reform is so controversial, now this question, do immigrants take jobs away from natives? And in many ways it is intuitive to think that they would, especially if you look at individual cases, someone who couldn't get a job. And you see around you that immigrants are employed in these occupations.
SUMPTIONAt the same time, interestingly a lot of the economists who've looked at data on these issues have found that actually the impacts of immigration on competition for jobs in the workforce are surprisingly small. And that at the end of the day immigration isn't actually one of the major drivers of how people do in the low wage end of the labor market. And I think this kind of discrepancy between what people intuitively feel and see and what the statistical evidence suggests, the fact that those are so different is one of the reasons the immigration reform is so hard.
NNAMDIAngelo, some might think that the industry does not have much to gain from a policy that would legalize immigrants, but the National Restaurant Association has come out in favor of immigration reform. How could new immigration policy benefit the business side of restaurants?
AMADORWell, let me go back to say, you know, it's not something that we just came out. I mean, we've been working at this for over a decade. And although I may agree with Andy and some of the skepticism on what's coming, you know, we also see that this is a process. And we need to support it and see if we can do something to legalize the workforce.
AMADORThere are two things that people are forgetting. We're not only talking about it is a small percentage of a workforce, but we're also talking about their families. And we're talking about the community. When you look at cities, when you look at parts of America that are growing and we do surveys and research, we realize that some of the growth in visits to restaurants are in areas where immigration -- the immigrant population is growing.
AMADORSo there's many other facets to this, you know, that are being taken into consideration with our position. One is also the customer. And as the industry itself becomes more diverse, you know, we have a larger number of managers that are minorities and Hispanic. The large growth in ownership by Hispanics, I mean, these people don't check who they are at the door of the restaurant. You know, just like Andy, you know, they come in. And I'll check myself on the sensible right, if there's such a term. They realize and they start pushing for these policies for the workers, for their families and for their neighbors.
NNAMDIMadeleine, if immigrant workers with legal status were more likely to leave exploitative employers, does that mean immigration reform could end up improving working conditions?
SUMPTIONI think there's an argument on the margins that that could be the case. Currently unauthorized immigrants do tend to earn less. They're also much less able to move between employees because they have ties to the employees that are willing to employ them, despite their legal status. And so while I didn't want to suggest that all employers are exploiting their unauthorized workers, frankly I don't think that that's true. There will be cases in which they are working in bad conditions, and this legal status would give them just much more bargaining power and many more opportunities to move around and to, you know, maybe move up into more highly skilled jobs as well.
NNAMDISaru, same question to you.
JAYARAMANIt's just not possible for, you know, the millions of workers in this industry to, you know, go find better working conditions. I mean, often these are the options that are available to people. And I want to say immigrant workers, like all restaurant workers, take great pride in their work and want to stay in this industry. It's just unfortunately statistically the vast majority of these jobs for both immigrants and non-immigrants are the lowest paying, the poorest paying jobs. And so there's a great deal of exploitation. And it can't just be about telling these workers, go find other jobs. They don't exist. This is the industry that's growing and unfortunately it's the lowest paying.
JAYARAMANAnd so we need to support these workers in these jobs. And, you know, I think most people who eat out, most people who are listening to this show recognize that the immigrants that we're talking about working in food service are professionals, know how to do their job, you know, move up the ladder if they can because they're professionals. They stay for a long time. And they should be treated as the professionals that they are, allowed to move up the ladder, allowed livable wages, allowed benefits and allowed to speak up when there are problems on the job.
JAYARAMANOtherwise, you are going to have this permanent underclass that drives down wages for the whole restaurant industry and the whole economy. So it can't just be telling these workers to find other jobs. It has to be about fixing this industry and fixing the economy as a whole and having an immigration reform that really, you know, lifts up people and allows them to live in dignity with livable wages and out of the shadows.
NNAMDIAngelo Amador, hold your thought for a second because J.P. in Manassas, Va. wants to address this issue of upward mobility. J.P., you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
J.P.Hi. Thank you, Kojo. I really appreciate that your show is wonderful. And your guess speaker, and whose name is eluding me, the one who just spoke, hit the nail on the head on so many occasions. I myself am from Puerto Rico and I actually used to, for many years, work in the food business. I'm now, I guess you could call it, white collar job and in banking but I still, you know, frequent restaurants. Still have friends who used to work in the restaurant business and many of them are Hispanics.
J.P.I think comprehensive immigration reform is a must. That would also make it a lot more fair for all workers, especially for the immigrants to make it just so that it's actually a fair situation where people can move up the ladder. My wife -- from Brazil. I mean, you know, you can get into so many different types of arguments but she came here the right way. And one can argue there is -- every way is the right way when you seek the American dream. And she learned English and I think that has a lot to do with opportunities that could be presented to many people.
J.P.But I think that having -- giving folks the opportunity is essential, and I'm doing a lot of great work with the Prince William County Chamber. And I'm really glad that they're making an effort to reach out to Hispanic businesses. So we're trying with Hispanic council to make it so that businesses can actually join the Chamber and find ways to network with other groups. But I think it starts with getting rid of xenophobia, getting to the acknowledgment that everybody comes in this country for opportunity. And Hispanics are a large number of employers.
J.P.And when I worked in the restaurant business -- just to end it right here -- every Hispanic that I worked with were the hardest workers. They were the ones that were on time. They were the ones that worked the hardest. And they were the ones that had the most cheer and just the best attitude. So immigration reform is huge and I'm really glad to hear this topic. And I just...
NNAMDIOkay. Allow me to have Angelo Amador respond.
AMADORYeah, and I just want to say, you know, we have one million food service outlets in the United States. And it is essential -- I'll go back to something Madeleine said -- it is essential that we legalize these workers because more and more restaurants are doing the right thing. The employment verification system is getting more sophisticated. More people are voluntarily signing up to use it and verify, which I believe, you know, and the dislikes in a lot of my members. It's like more and more people are doing it.
AMADORSo one of the things that we want to do is as we do the right thing in checking identification and checking that people are legal to work, we don't want undocumented to be open to be exploited by anybody in any business. And the way to do that is to legalize them and mandate that -- you know, close those loopholes, you know, for people to be able to hire and pay under the table, you know. My members, you know, they pay taxes, they do all that and they want to make sure that everybody does the right thing as well.
NNAMDIAndy Shallal, how difficult can it be for employers to verify the legal status of workers, or let me put that another way. Do you think it's your duty, the restaurant owner's duty to verify your workers' legal status?
SHALLALAbsolutely, unequivocally no. That is not my responsibility to verify legal status. I'm not an ICE agent. I'm not interested in becoming an ICE agent. I'm not there to break up families and do an a-ha, an I-got-you kind of approach to my workers. I think it's -- I think that kind of e-verify and those types of things are going to the employers that are already sort of shady, already creating all kinds of problems, are going to also use it as a way to have this underclass of people working for them, if they choose not to e-verify them, so to speak.
SHALLALSo I think this idea of e-verify is just another sort of attempt at window dressing, to try to create the sense that we are this secure, hermetically sealed country that no one can enter accept the right people that we allow. I think this idea that you can just put up borders and prevent people from moving across them is an idea that has failed for decades and decades and decades. As long as people are in situations that are difficult, they're going to find higher ground and be able to survive. People are here to survive.
SHALLALBut I think it's really important, if I could add one more thing, please. It's really important to understand who is behind this immigration reform work. I think the prison industrial complex is one of the most important players in this whole issue. The Corrections Corporation of America spend over a million dollars lobbying. In fact, they were instrumental in writing the bill SB 1070 in Arizona, that made it possible for a policeman to stop somebody on the road, put them in jail if they don't feel like they're legal, whatever -- or they think that they're not legal.
SHALLALSo this idea that we're going to be able to hold people in holding cells, putting them in prison -- these are not detention centers, these are prisons that we have to hold people, separate them from their families. I have stories my own staff tells me. They have stories coming across here, losing loved ones because of the passage that they have to go through to get here. Having to be separated from families because one of them gets caught, the other one has to stay. Children that are sick that cannot stay in this country, and they have to be sent back.
SHALLALThe stories go on and on and on. We have to look at it as this is a human rights issue. This is not just laws that are put in place to sort of separate people from one another.
NNAMDIAngelo Amador, Andy Shallal does not want to be an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent. He does not want to be the one who has to verify whether someone has entered this country legally, but if he refuses to do that, what penalties do restaurant owners face if they employee undocumented workers?
AMADORWell, there is are there are large penalties, and they're going to get worse, right? You know, that's a decision that was made in 19...
SHALLALIt's the same penalties they have now. I mean, it's not going to be any different.
AMADORThe proposal will probably increase the penalties, and again, you know, whether it is the employer's role or not, you know, and some people, and Andy's one of them, would say it's not. I mean, this is an argument that was had in 1986 when the last amnesty bill, whatever you want to call it, was signed by President Reagan. And it was decided as a compromise that they were going to ask employers to be the ones in charge of checking employment authorization.
AMADORSo in a way, you know, what our role is at the National Restaurant Association, is making sure that as they put additional requirements that they are easy to use and employers do not get caught, you know, with just paperwork errors, being fined for that, that they have an ability to fix those and be able to use a system that it is easy to use. The one we have now, which was created in 1986, does not work, does not keep up with technology, but again, you know, I understand and respect, you know, Andy's position on that, but at the same time, you know, that was an argument that I guess you could say was won or lost in 1986 and now we're just working on the laws as it exists.
AMADORAnd our role as the National Restaurant Association as the vast majority of my members, and I know Andy is one of them, is, you know, they want to be in compliance with the law, federal, state, and local, and this is, you know, one of many, you know, laws that they need to comply with.
NNAMDIJ.P. thank you very much for your call.
JAYARAMANKojo, could I just...
NNAMDIPlease go ahead, Saru.
JAYARAMANYes. You know, we, as I mentioned, have about a hundred employer partners around the country, and unlike the National Restaurant Association, they are in vast majority, small restaurant owners, small business, and they are in vast -- overwhelmingly against e-verify because unlike the large Fortune 500 restaurant corporations that are part of the National Restaurant Association, they are would not be able -- I mean, it's not just the fact, as Andy said, that people, you know, folks like Andy should not have to be ICE agents, should not have to do that
JAYARAMANIt's also that the administrative burden on these folks to have to find people, you know, check their documents, I mean, it would kill a lot of small business. And in fact, in 2011, when the National Restaurant Association came out in favor of e-verify, even the Tea Party said this would hurt small business. So I think, like Andy said, we have to know who's really driving something like e-verify. Is it small business that I think is general -- would generally agree that this is both inhumane, inappropriate, and would hurt as us small business, or is it large corporations?
NNAMDIIt might be large corporations, Saru, but what do you think the chances are of getting any kind of immigration reform passed without some form of verification on the part of employers?
JAYARAMANI think it's time for Congress to listen to the vast majority of people in America and to small business as opposed to listening to large corporations and trade lobbyists that don't represent the vast majority of America. And so, you know, to me, political likelihood is about our ability to lift our voices as, you know, the vast majority of people and small business, and say, we need an immigration reform that is just, that is fair, that allows -- that doesn't create perverse incentives for employers to pay less for everybody, to drive the wage floor down for everybody, that doesn't, you know, support big business in just having cheap labor that they can exploit, but instead allows everybody the chance to move up to a livable wage job.
JAYARAMANThe chance for everybody to have an equal, you know, playing field with regard to getting a job, and to speak up when there are problems on the job. And so, you know, I'm not one to be held back by what's likely and what's not. We have to fight for what's right and just.
SUMPTIONSo I think some of these criticisms of employment verification systems are certainly legitimate. Just to put the other side of the argument and explain to listeners why this has actually become something of a mainstream proposal and something that's considered relatively likely to be enacted, is that if you're -- if Congress is trying to find a way to be able to legalize people now without creating the risk of unauthorized immigration in the future, requiring employers to verify the status of their workers is kind of one of the only tools that they have left.
SUMPTIONI mean, an enormous amount of resources have been poured into enforcement at the border. A report for the Immigration Policy Institute earlier this year found that the United States spends more on immigration enforcement than on all other major federal law enforcement combined. And so one of the arguments that people are making, and I think it does have some validity, is that if you can't address the act of unauthorized workers to get jobs once they're in the country, then it will make it very difficult to prevent those flows of unauthorized workers in the future.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation. If you have called, stay on the line. The number is 800-433-8850. We're talking about immigrants in restaurants. You can also send firstname.lastname@example.org, or send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking immigrants and restaurant is with Andy Shallal. He is the owner of Busboys and Poets. Madeleine Sumption is a senior policy analysis at the Migration Policy Institute. Angelo Amador is vice president of labor and work force policy at that National Restaurant Association, and Saru Jayaraman is co-founder and co-director of Restaurant Opportunity Center United, which aims to improve working conditions in restaurants.
NNAMDIWe have an email from Evu who said, "I'm listening to your show and just heard the phone call regarding immigrants taking teenagers' jobs. I worked in restaurants for many years and in all those years I have never seen a teenager come into any the restaurants and ask for a job in the back. They always wanted to be a host or server." Is that your experience, Andy Shallal?
SHALLALI think -- yeah. I think most teenagers are there on a temporary basis. They either go to school or they're off for the summer or something like that, and they're going to find the jobs that probably require the least amount of time and training, you know, as opposed to something in the kitchen which requires a lot more skill.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones. Here now is Dave in Waldorf, Md. Dave, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVEHey, Kojo. Thanks for a wonderful show. I'd just like to make a comment. The lady that was just speaking said it's inhumane to call and do an e-verify to see if a worker is documented or not. I mean, we have too many undocumented workers here, and we would be able to take better care of the immigrants and use better programs to help the ones that went to the trouble to get here legally, and inhumane is not following the law checking with the e-verify. Inhumane is like if you're smashing their fingers with a baseball bat. That's inhumane.
NNAMDISaru Jayaraman, care to respond?
JAYARAMANSure. You know, I totally agree that it would be wonderful if we could provide really good services and support to people who are moving up the ladder. The truth is though, it's not as simple as some people break the law and some people don't break the law. Some people, you know, really work and get their status. That is actually not the case. There are millions of people in America who would do anything to get status, pay taxes, you know, try for years and years and years and are experiencing decades of backlog, have no opportunities whatsoever to be, you know, to become legalized to or gain status.
JAYARAMANThe truth is that it's not so simple to gain status. So it's not that people come here thinking I'm going to break the law and gain the system. People come because, as Andy mentioned, they're often forced out of their countries by economic necessity, sometimes policies that the United States has been involved in that created that need in their home countries. They come here seeking work to support their families because otherwise their families cannot survive, and when they come, they're not looking to gain the system, In fact, most of them -- many of them are paying taxes, are working as hard as they can, often try to become legalized and just can't because the system is so broken. And that's why we -- sorry. Go ahead.
SHALLALI'm sorry. I didn't mean to cut you off. Sorry.
JAYARAMANNo. Go ahead, Andy.
SHALLALBut I think -- I think also what the listeners need to know is it a lot of these folks who bring false documents, let's say, for instance, to a work place, they're paying into to taxes that they'll never be able to recoup in any way, shape, or form. They're paying into social security. They're paying into all kinds of taxes that they cannot recall. They cannot file forms. So these taxes are actually going to -- into the economy, and they're getting nothing out of it.
NNAMDIAngelo, the restaurant city employs more minority managers -- at least that's my understanding, than just about any other industry. Has the restaurant industry become a gateway into the American economy for many immigrants?
AMADORWell, the restaurant industry is the first job for most people -- for many people, restaurant and hospitality is where, you know, teenagers come to get their first job, and to learn, you know, to wake up early, to be on time, and to follow instructions in many cases. So if it is the gateway for, you know, American workers, of course it has also become the gateway for a lot of immigrants because a lot of -- a lot of what -- the jobs that are in the restaurant industry only require on-the-job training.
AMADORSo, you know, it's -- and there's -- there are other professions like that, but, you know, if you're arriving from another country, and you don't speak the language, you know, you can still go to a restaurant and be able to get on-the-job training and get a job right away as you move up. So that's why I think it's a gateway. We think it's great, and we think it's great that, you know, as the country and the communities become more diverse, also ownership and managers, you know, are becoming more diverse as well. So now it's not only entry level. But again, I also point out, 80 percent of restaurant owners report that they started in one of these entry level jobs.
NNAMDIHere's Fred in Bethesda, Md. Fred, your turn.
FREDHi, Kojo. Great show. Yeah. I just want to -- well, first of all, I want to second what the woman just said about people coming into the country. Most people come to the country because -- and this is true -- we can go back hundreds of years, why all our forefathers came. It's because of lack of opportunity in their own country. That is first and foremost. I grew up a lit in a Latino community as a kid down in Panama, and those people -- most Latinos are all family oriented, and they don't really want to be here at all, but it's just they don't know how to use and exploit the resources that most of their countries are rich with, and other countries in the world are taking advantage of that.
FREDBut for the most part they want to be with their families. It's why I continue to go back there for holidays, because it is so noncommercial and so family oriented. So I just think they want to be here to make money. If they can do it legally, they'd prefer to do it that way. If they can pay their taxes in some way and hopefully not raise red flags, they would do it that way also. But for the most part, they just wanted to be treated with respect and have the opportunity to make a living.
NNAMDIFred, thank you very much for your call. We heard Andy Shallal say earlier that when we spoke to his employees in a focus group, they don't have a great deal of confidence in this legislation that is now before the Congress. Madeleine, how many undocumented immigrants would seek out a path to citizenship were that available?
SUMPTIONSo there are currently somewhere between 11 and 12 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States, and it seems -- well, we'll have to wait and see exactly when the bill proposes, but it seems like the way their discussions are currently going, most of those people would be eligible at least for some form of legal status. And then some of the tricky questions are going to be how do they move from that basic legal status to having lawful permanent residence, or the green card, which is extremely important in terms of giving someone stable resident status in the United States and a lot of rights that other Americans have, and then eventually moving onto citizenship.
SUMPTIONThat path might be quite long. Not everyone will want to take it. There are likely to be substantial fees along the way if the current discussions are any indication, and a lot of the people who are unauthorized, frankly just earning that much, and it's going to be difficult for them to come up some of these fees. If you look at the current populations as well, naturalization rates aren't actually that high among -- particularly among the Mexican community. You have to meet language requirements. There are costs associated with it, and so a lot of those people either won't want to or probably in many cases won't be able to make it all the way to citizenship.
NNAMDIDeals fall apart in Congress all the time, and immigration has been a contentious issue. What will it mean for restaurants if lawmakers don't move forward with reform in 30 seconds or less, Angelo?
AMADORWell, I would just say, you know, it's been six years since the last vote. I always see the glass half full, so I have to say, you know, I have hope for this bill. I think we need some legal permanent status for these individuals. We cannot wait any longer, whichever number it is 11, 8, you know, but they need to take action, and I'm hopeful they will.
NNAMDISaru Jayaraman, in ten seconds or less, what does it mean for you if this deal falls apart? You don't think it's a good bill anyway.
JAYARAMANI think it's incredibly important for us to continue to fight for immigration reform, but if we care about immigrants, we have to fight both for immigration reform and for policies that will lift wages like raising the minimum wage, raising the tip minimum wage from $2.13 an hour, providing workers with things like paid sick days.
NNAMDISaru, we are just about out of time. Saru Jayaraman, thank you for joining us. Angelo Amador, thank you for joining us. Madeleine Sumption, thank you for joining us. Andy Shallal, always a pleasure. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo and guests explore what you can learn about D.C. by riding its bus system.
T.C. Boyle's latest novel explores the darker side of the American ideal of freedom, from a woman who follows the extreme libertarian "sovereign citizen" movement to a disturbed young man who models himself on the pioneer John Colter.
It's your turn to discuss these topics or whatever is on your mind.