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Grass-roots businesses like my restaurants need immigrant labor to thrive

by Jim Baron

May 12, 2019

Since 1988, my wife and I have operated more than 20 different restaurants in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Recently, we built a new restaurant and event center in Fort Worth. Whether it was the people who laid the brick, cleaned the site, painted the exterior, or did the landscape and electrical work, almost all were immigrants from Mexico and Central America. 

Most of the people who have worked for us over our 30 years in the Texas restaurant business, including our cooks, servers, bussers and hosts, have also been immigrants. Like our construction employees, they have been the most hardworking, loyal and reliable people we have had the honor of including on our team.

Restaurants are true grass-roots businesses that, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, employ 12.1 million people, supporting a constellation of other businesses and fueling the prosperity of our local and national economy. Immigrants are undeniably the backbone of this industry. Immigrants are not taking jobs from anyone. Without immigrants, many industries as we know them today wouldn't exist. There are few non-immigrant kids in school eager to learn to how to lay bricks, and there are few people who want to be servers, cooks or even kitchen managers. Immigrants fill these gaps in our labor market when native-born Americans won't. And they do it with passion and dedication.

Another perpetuated myth is that the reason immigrants are hired is because they are underpaid. A food server can easily make $50,000 a year in a busy, full-service restaurant, and managers can make up to to $100,000 annually. A good line cook can demand $18 an hour starting wage, and that person often gets recruited away by someone offering higher pay and benefits. And restaurants are continually understaffed, like almost all hotels and construction companies.

And yet misguided immigration policies prevent immigrants from contributing their talents to the fullest. State laws like Texas' Senate Bill 4, which allows law enforcement to ask detained people about their immigration status, have created fear in our communities. Regardless of their legal status, immigrants are being unfairly targeted and harassed by law enforcement. 

When driving, they are afraid of being stopped by police for a minor traffic infraction or missing taillight and then questioned and harassed about their immigration status. Restricting access to driver's licenses just generates more fear and prevents immigrants from contributing economically to their communities and families. And without driver's licenses, they cannot meet the basic safe-driving policies that come with the right to drive in the State of Texas.

Critics say, "Why don't these people just come to the U.S. the legal way?" But the fact is that there is no work visa program available to these immigrants. There is no legal way for them to adjust their status, other than to marry a legal resident and obtain a green card. And there is no legal way for new immigrants to cross the border and work for restaurants, hotels, landscape companies, farms, homes, hospitals and construction companies — all of which are understaffed and looking for qualified applicants. Immigrants are blamed for illegally entering the country, when in fact they are victims of our broken immigration policies that provide no legal pathway to many people simply seeking to live safely and feed their families.

There are practical measures that can be taken at the state level to ensure that our immigrant workers remain a productive part of our workforce. First, we can eliminate discriminatory laws like SB4 that target communities of color. Second, we must allow immigrants to access driver's licenses so that they can get to work and conduct other necessary daily activities.

If we advance policies to welcome rather than vilify immigrants, we can boost the Texas economy, and more importantly, take a moral stance against discrimination in our neighborhoods. It is now more important than ever that lawmakers agree on federal and local solutions to jump-start the Texas economy, create jobs and keep our immigrant workers in America.

Jim Baron is the owner of the Blue Mesa Grill and TNT Tacos and Tequila restaurants. He is also a steering committee member of the Texas Business Immigration Coalition. He wrote this article for The Dallas Morning News.

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