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ICE Cracks Down on Restaurants Employing Illegal Workers

Undocumented workers make up large proportions of the nation’s chefs, cooks and dishwashers, and as the Obama administration shifts much of its immigration enforcement efforts toward employers, enforcement against restaurants is on the rise, The New York Times reported today. But many in the restaurant industry feel the system places an unfair burden on them by asking them to detect fake documents from applicants.

Restaurants are a major employer of undocumented immigrants: The Pew Hispanic Center estimated in 2008 that illegal immigrants make up about 20 percent of chefs and cooks, and about 28 percent of dishwashers.

Some restaurant owners and managers know they are employing undocumented workers. A chef and restaurateur told the Times he suspects the number of undocumented workers employed by the restaurant industry is actually higher than Pew estimates:

“We always, always hire the undocumented workers,” he said. “It’s not just me, it’s everybody in the industry. First, they are willing to do the work. Second, they are willing to learn. Third, they are not paid as well. It’s an economic decision. It’s less expensive to hire an undocumented person.”

While many restaurants do comply with the law, according to government officials, labor economists say immigrants are highly appealing hires because they tend to be especially loyal, stable and dependable. They are also more likely than United States citizens to work for lower wages without health insurance, sick days or paid vacations and paid breaks.

This is the type of exploitation of illegal immigrants the Obama administration vowed to stop. It’s a good goal: Although immigrants do not, for the most part, take jobs away from American workers, their exploitation drives down wages and worker treatment within certain industries.

Workplace audits have increased 50 percent during Obama’s term, and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency is pushing widespread use of its E-Verify database to check the immigration status of job applicants. (E-Verify is already required for federal contractors.) But E-Verify has a number of problems — most notably misidentifying a number of applicants as illegal — and employers are told to hire auditing firms or train personnel to detect fake documents. The National Restaurant Association has instead lobbied for comprehensive immigration reform to allow paths to citizenship for workers already in the country.

Restaurants have typically been left alone — for the most part — in immigration enforcement, but this is changing. A widespread crackdown could have major implications on the cost of dining out, restaurant owners argued. “At the end of the day, the customer is going to end up paying for it,” the anonymous restaurateur told The New York Times.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made a similar argument about why people don’t really want illegal immigrants out of the agriculture industry. “But if you didn’t have these folks, you would be spending a lot more — three, four or five times more — for food, or we would have to import food and have all the food security risks,” Vilsack told Politico.

His solution, notably, was the same as the The National Restaurant Association’s: comprehensive immigration reform.

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