Food for Thought: Immigrants in the Kitchen

Mike Pesca reports on the effect that a crackdown on illegal immigration might have on the restaurant industry in New York City and elsewhere. There are no reliable statistics, but anecdotal evidence suggests some of the best restaurants are staffed largely by Latinos.

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News; more now on immigration. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeline Brand. The Senate may be close to compromise on immigration legislation. A big change in the law would affect the lives of millions of undocumented workers in this country, and a lot of kitchens in big city restaurants. As NPR's Mike Pesca reports, nearly everyone in New York, from kitchen workers to restaurant management to the eating public, wants these workers to stay.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

A review of immigrant workers in New York City restaurants might read something like this, if it were printed in the Zagats Guide: Diners give high marks for the cheap, reliable workers who keep already high prices from getting higher. The tradeoff is the occasional busboy who doesn't understand your olive oil needs.

Tim Zagat, founder and CEO of the Zagat Survey, says that immigrant labor, legal and otherwise, is nothing short of vital to the inner workings of most New York City restaurants.

Mr. TIM ZAGAT (Founder and CEO, Zagat): I go into the backs of restaurants all the time. In most restaurants, and I'm talking about the better restaurants, there may be one European and everybody else is from South and Central America.

PESCA: Hard numbers are hard to come by. One person who has worked in restaurants his whole life, and now advocates for workers, estimated that 40 percent of workers in kitchens were illegal immigrants.

Dennis Diaz(ph) is an organizer for Local 100, New York City's restaurant union, which may very well have members who are in the country legally. The union says if an employee's documents are in order, it's not for them to investigate.

Diaz also says that a heavily immigrant workforce, including some undocumented workers, is beneficial to everyone.

Mr. DENNIS DIAZ (Organizer, Local 100): We're talking about dishwashers, prep cooks, so the employer needs them, the immigrants need the work; it's an issue where we're working together to be able to make sure these immigrants do not lose their benefits, because they're dream ultimately is to live the American dream.

PESCA: It wasn't always so tactfully accepted that large numbers of undocumented workers would populated New York kitchens. Mike Cutler spent over two decades working for what was then knows as the INS. Back in the '70s and '80s, sweeps for illegal workers were common and usually fruitful.

Mr. MIKE CUTLER (Former Employee, INS): Our job was to find illegal aliens wherever it was. But if you went into the greasy spoon diners, you were always sure to walk out with a bunch of illegal aliens. And then they started to tell us not to bother with the diners. The result of this, the lack enforcement, the lack of will to enforce the laws, is we now have an estimated illegal alien population that ranges from 12 million to 20 million, depending on whose figures you want to follow.

PESCA: Cutler sees a danger in a system which enables essentially anonymous people to hide in plain sight; with many businesses from check-cashing services to call centers existing to service their needs.

Mr. CUTLER: But as advantageous as it is for the dishwasher, imagine how helpful it is to the terrorist or the drug trafficker. So as we wind up with larger and larger populations of people in that situation, we wind up with more businesses that are conducive to criminal activity.

PESCA: Documenting the undocumented is one reason why the National Restaurant Association has helped form a coalition called the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition. It includes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Meat Institute and a number of hotel chains.

John Gay(ph), vice president of the National Restaurant Association, says mass deportations are not the answer.

Mr. JOHN GAY (National Restaurant Association): Well, the whole economy would suffer if you took five percent of the workforce out, out of the U.S. But industries such as construction and hospitality and healthcare do have a higher percentage of immigrants in the workforce, they would suffer more.

PESCA: Such a measure seems, not only unfathomable to most New Yorkers, it seems undesirable in a city sitting in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, a city where 40 percent of the residents are foreign born.

The national debate, which is so heated in places like the Southwest and California, is seen as something of a curiosity here, something to discuss after dinner of Italian food cooked by a Nicaraguan chef, served by Guatemalan busboys, right before you call over the garson for the check, por favor.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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