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As Congress moves forward with immigration reform, we take a look at how this issue connects to culture, business and families in the Northwest.Our region is home to a unique blend of immigrants who work in all parts of our economy — from high-tech to agriculture. This population already has a deeply-rooted history here. And its ranks are expanding rapidly.Proposals for comprehensive immigration reform address border security, employment verification, guest-worker programs and pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the US.

Immigration Reform In The Restaurant Kitchen

Immigrant restaurant workers
AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

Next time you go out for a nice dinner, give a listen near the restaurant’s kitchen. Amid the bustle, there’s a decent chance you’ll hear chefs, cooks or dishwashers speaking Spanish. In the restaurant industry, about one out of every 10 workers is an immigrant, according to a 2008 study from the Pew Hispanic Center.

The report found that nearly 20 percent of restaurant cooks and 30 percent of dishwashers in the US are undocumented immigrants. It’s clear restaurants heavily rely on undocumented workers — and immigration reform could really shake things up.

To get a sense of how common this practice is around Seattle, I did a highly unscientific spot check at a half-dozen restaurants in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, at places with dishes like braised pork belly and chestnut soup on their menus.  

In five out of six restaurants, some of the kitchen staff was speaking Spanish. That’s not to say they’re undocumented; I didn’t ask.

However, a line cook named Pedro suggested he would seek out other work if he had the option. “This job is stressful and it doesn’t pay much,” Pedro said. “My dream is to have my own business and be my own boss.”

Low-Skill Labor Market

Across town, a former restaurant worker named Jose Antonio is looking for work. We met at Casa Latina, a nonprofit that hires out workers for odd jobs like gardening and house cleaning. Most of the workers are Latinos who are in the US illegally, including Jose Antonio. For that reason, he asked to only use his first name.

Jose Antonio has spent years washing dishes in Seattle restaurants, from fast food to high-end gourmet. “The majority of people with papers don’t want to do this job,” Jose Antonio said. “They’d rather apply to a better job. At a restaurant, this is a hard job. Everything’s left for the end and you’re the last person to leave. Day after day after day, it’s a job that gets really tedious.”

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Just like Pedro, Jose Antonio said he would also pursue better jobs if he had legal status here. “I would apply for more jobs that I see on Craigslist, like, to work in a warehouse or operate a forklift," he said. "I look for jobs online but they ask for a social security number. For people with documents, there’s a lot more opportunity.”

Pedro and Jose Antonio illustrate a key question in the debate about immigration reform. What will happen if all those restaurant workers are suddenly free to pursue other work?

A key proposal for immigration reform is a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants who are already here. Some employers fear that would lead to a worker shortage that would, in turn, jeopardize their business. And they want a system in place to better predict and manage future labor needs.

This workforce issue is one of the most critical pieces of immigration reform and is partly why past efforts have crumbled.

Now, labor and business leaders are negotiating a solution. They want to create a new program to bring in foreign workers for low-skill jobs that Americans don’t fill, including jobs at restaurants, hotels and construction sites.

Workers would come here on visas, as free agents. They could work for any employers that would hire them.

“There are so many open jobs right now in this country that remain open because people don’t have the skills to fill them, or the people who have the skills to fill them aren’t here,” said Eric Schinfeld, chief of staff with the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.

Schinfeld said employers rely on the immigration system to backfill both lower-skill and high-skill jobs. At the local and national level, the Chamber is pushing immigration reform as its top priority in D.C. this year.

“It’s really about making sure that there’s a link between job openings and people to fill them,” Schinfeld said. “Right now in our state — frankly, in our country — there’s a real disconnect.”

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Critics of foreign worker programs worry it just gives business a backdoor pipeline to cheap labor, but Schinfeld dismisses that idea. He says a better system for foreign workers could benefit and protect people on both sides: employers offering jobs and those filling them.

Here in the Seattle area, Schinfeld can envision plenty of possible uses for this type of worker program. “Whether it be farmers markets or food trucks, I think there’s a lot of opportunity to think creatively about what our workforce needs are," Schinfeld said. "Specifically when the tourism season really picks up, you could really see a boom there in not only restaurants, but in all hospitality industries.”

Workers And Bosses

In restaurants, you find unauthorized workers in all types of jobs; not just in the kitchen. At a restaurant in Bothell, where the specialty is a Mexican sandwich called a “torta,” the owner says everyone on his staff has a social security number. However, he admits to one exception.

“Yes, I’m illegal,” confesses Mr. Martinez. He asked only to use his last name because of his legal status. He said he’s open about his situation because he believes in the system. He pays his taxes and follows the laws, he said, so he sees no reason why immigration authorities would single him out.

Martinez moved to the US from Mexico City 14 years ago, then eventually started his business here in a taco truck. “My business started with big dream when I came to the USA,” Martinez said. “I’m working very hard every day — 16 hours every day for six years.”

Now, Martinez owns three restaurants in the Seattle suburbs and oversees a staff of 18 people, mostly Latinos. He says Americans rarely respond to his job ads. He says being undocumented has not been a barrier to running a business or obtaining loans and permits. Yet he recognizes a lack of documentation can be a barrier for many people to move up into better jobs. That’s one reason he supports immigration reform. 

And of course, there’s a more personal reason for him and his family.

“Believe me,” Martinez said. “I love this country, because it’s my country.”

This story is part of our series, "Culture Shift," in which we report how immigration reform connects to culture, business and families in the Northwest. Spanish translation in this story by Liz Jones.

Year started with KUOW: 2006