A year ago I stopped into one of my favorite San Francisco restaurants to say hello to the head chef who had been cooking at the breakfast/lunch spot for 15 years. He wasn’t in. The staff said he was on vacation – strange since he had never taken a day off. A family man, with a wonderful wife and children, who attended mass every Saturday night so he could open at 5:00 on Sunday morning, his reliability and work ethic, was stellar. The owner told me that INS Agents had come in and arrested him for immigration violations.
Knowing the Mexican-born chef had paid taxes over the past decade and had also applied for citizenship two years prior, I was embarrassed as an American, standing in a kitchen of hard working immigrants, that our country would do that to someone who was living by the system we created. The omelets crafting culinarian was scooped up because his lawyer didn’t go to court on an immigration hearing that had been rescheduled. Two months later, the chef was released from the immigration crow bar hotel. Today he is closer to citizenship. And, if the visiting worker immigration act passes more employees will be closer to possible citizenship.
You do not have to be a wizard in cultural behavior to realize we set the bar on immigration when we stole the land we live on from the Native Americans.
As restaurateurs, immigration has been the savior of the restaurant business in the past decade. Providing talented employees who are willing to learn, immigrant labor pools are essential to the country´s restaurant industry. Not only are many immigrants passionate and knowledgeable about food and hospitality, but also they have a desire to work.
In April of 2000 I was in dire need of a dishwasher. The Dot Com bubble hadn´t burst and an employee pool in San Francisco was as dry as Death Valley. I headed to the Cesar Chavez Employment Agency in the Mission District. The congregation of day laborers who had sufficient documentation was always a handy tool for the human resource department.
On my way to the intersection agency, I saw a Caucasian man holding a sign at the corner of Golden Gate and Van Ness Avenues. "Will work for food. Viet Nam Vet. I need Help. Please." The words on his sign popped out at me. Since I was stopping for the light I lowered my window and asked if he would like a job washing dishes. I told him he would work Saturday and Sunday, get paid $10.00 an hour, get three meals a day and all the coffee or soda he wanted. He looked at me as though a fool. He turned his head left to right, making sure nobody was in earshot. “Buddy, I make fifteen bucks an hour on this ^&n()*#$ corner, why would I want to work for you?” His reply made me snicker. And I quickly picked up the dishwasher that I needed moments later, and he stayed with the restaurant long after I sold it.
Many claim that the illegal aliens, as they are called, are ruining the job market for Americans and lowering the wages. Ridiculous. If the Visitor Immigration Act does not pass, Americans will not be able to eat out for decades while the restaurant industry regroups. Restaurant owners will have difficulty filling kitchen jobs and the hourly wages for a dishwasher, prep cook, or salad prep person will not increase because of it. Wages, however, are not the reason restaurant owner’s look to immigrant for help- Americans do not want to work their way up in the restaurant business. Many Americans want to begin their careers as celebrity chefs on the Food Network. One of the greatest stress relieving prescriptions in the food business is knowing that the foreign population of your staff will show up daily, do their job, anxiously learn, and look to grow within your organization. And, they will be thankful when that happens.
When the geniuses concerned about low paying jobs realize that the possible increase in wages would be passed on to the customer, through higher menu costs, they wouldn’t be so quick to spout off, now that Jack Abramoff’s free lunch restaurant is closed in Washington, D.C.
Immigration has always been a controversial issue in this country. I am sure the Native Americans, who are surrounded by restaurant facilities in the Casino’s they now own must be laughing at the current debate in the nation’s capital. They too wanted to get rid of the illegal aliens that came to this country. But they lost that battle and were rewarded with Casinos and restaurants built on land we didn´t want.
We have opened up the floodgates of immigrants. And, something needs to be done about illegal workers and fraudulent documentation. But the answer is not to ship everyone back to the country that they came from in an open netted swoop. That would cripple small and large business. It would make it impossible for many of the 950,000 restaurants in this country to open their doors because it is a proven sad fact, many Americans would rather hold a sign on a corner than get their hands wet in warm, soapy, dishwater.
Write your Congressman; Let him know how you feel. It may make a difference to your business, your future, and the world we live in.