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How Punishing Sanctuary Cities Will Destroy the Restaurant Industry

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Trump’s latest executive order takes aim at the workers who make your dinner possible

A man in chef’s whites rushes through the kitchen with greens Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images

President Donald Trump signed an executive order this morning to start stripping federal grant money from American cities that refuse to aid federal immigration authorities in deporting non-violent undocumented immigrants. There are over 200 of these "sanctuary cities" in the U.S., including massive population centers like Los Angeles, Washington D.C., New York, Miami, and Chicago.

In a White House briefing earlier this afternoon, press secretary Sean Spicer explained that the order charges federal agencies to “figure out how to defund” any channels by which money may be flowing from the agencies to sanctuary cities. The clear intent is to force the cities to comply with Trump’s promised program of increased deportation, though whether this can actually be imposed remains to be seen. Most federal grant money is distributed at the state level, not directly to cities; more importantly, the Supreme Court has previously ruled that forcing city law enforcement to comply with federal law enforcement is an unconstitutional violation of states’ rights.

Even if Trump’s order is only partially enacted, it will have a broad impact on America’s immigrant population, as well as on the people whose lives intersect with immigrants — which is to say, everyone. The effect would be particularly noticeable in the service sector, which includes restaurant and food workers: According to a 2015 study released by the Pew Hispanic Center, service is the single largest labor sector for undocumented immigrants in the U.S., employing nearly a third of all undocumented workers. A 2008 Pew analysis drills down in more detail on restaurant labor, reporting that at least 20 percent of the nearly 2.6 million cooks and 28 percent of the 360,000 dishwashers in American restaurants are undocumented workers.

What exactly will happen next is hard to predict. If Trump’s concerns about immigration result in this plan being successfully put into place, the lives of millions of American residents and their families will be forcibly disrupted. The process of marshaling policy and protocol for increased deportation could take years, but the effect on the American economy — particularly the restaurant industry — would be felt long before the physical departure of the undocumented workers themselves. Under increased federal scrutiny, and without sanctuary city protections, there would be a strong disincentive for restaurateurs to hire (or to continue to employ) unauthorized workers. It’s a federal crime to hire or harbor undocumented immigrants, and while those laws have been infrequently enforced in the past (or, in many sanctuary cities, actively roadblocked), they can result in the employer receiving jail time of up to 10 years, and fines and asset seizures that can climb into the millions of dollars.

Many undocumented workers do not disclose their status to their employers, receiving standard wages and paying income tax. Some restaurateurs knowingly employ unauthorized workers, which can put the workers in a position of needing to accept significantly lower pay than their on-the-books counterparts. Overall, however, undocumented workers tend to fill the lowest-paid positions in restaurants, and to replace them restaurants would likely need to attract workers with higher pay, which would be an increase to overhead costs, leading to raised menu prices — which, given the already tight margins of most restaurants’ business models and customers’ well-established aversion to paying more, could translate into widespread closures. Of course, that’s if restaurants can find those replacement workers in the first place: If 20 percent of cooks and 38 percent of dishwashers were to be removed from the industry, the back-of-house staff shortage currently plaguing the restaurant world could become unrecoverable.

While Trump might be hoping that holding federal funds hostage will force cities to swiftly comply with his policies, it’s unlikely that anything will move forward without a fight. Shortly after winning the election, the President-elect promised that this funding withdrawal would be among his priorities upon taking office, and mayors of several of the largest (including New York, San Francisco, and Washington D.C.) sanctuary cities immediately spoke out to defend their commitment to protecting the integrity of all their residents:

Restaurants themselves have also been speaking out against Trump’s policies. The AP reports that a coalition of 80 or so restaurants around the country have declared themselves “sanctuary restaurants,” a mostly symbolic gesture indicating that they are spaces where people of all immigration and documentation status can safely be both employed and served.


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*This article has been updated to reflect the fact that many unauthorized workers do not disclose their immigration status to their employers.

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