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If You Care About Food, You Need to Care About Immigration Policy

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Otherwise, there may not be any food for you to care about

Latino Workers Stay Home For 'Day Without Immigrants' Protest
El Tamarindo restaurant is closed as Latino immigrant workers stay home as part of a Day Without Immigrants protests in Washington, DC.
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

The Associated Press reported today that President Donald Trump is considering mobilizing up to 100,000 National Guard troops in pursuit of unauthorized immigrants. The White House immediately issued a denial, but the thrust of the report is in keeping with the Trump administration’s current anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy. As with virtually every immigration-related position promised or enacted by the administration, this could have disastrous consequences for the restaurant industry, as well as the entire American food system.

If you care at all about food — whether fine dining restaurants, grocery stores, fast-food counters, school cafeterias, coffee shops, farmer’s markets, big-box supercenters, or backyard tomato gardens — it’s time for you to care about immigration, deportation, labor, and what it means to be legally allowed to work in America.

First, some facts

Top to bottom, the American food system relies on immigrant labor more than any other cross-section of the economy. According to the 2014 Hunger Report, over 70 percent of farm workers are foreign-born, with an estimated half of those undocumented. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that over 10 percent of restaurant workers are immigrants, with a study by Pew Hispanic finding that at least 20 percent of all cooks and 28 percent of all dishwashers are undocumented. (The depth and breadth of the American food system’s reliance on immigrants was on display during yesterday’s A Day Without Immigrants strikes.)

Despite the stereotype of unauthorized immigrants being paid in cash under the table, which may be the case with many farming jobs, most undocumented workers in restaurants and food-production factories are hired as legal employees, filing false information with their I-9 forms. They’re paid — and have taxes withheld — as if they are authorized workers. (This accounts for much of the nearly $12 billion undocumented immigrants contribute in taxes each year. It also accounts for virtually every restaurateur’s vehement claims that they absolutely do not employ any unauthorized immigrants.)

Those who defend the Trump administration’s attacks on immigrants are quick to point out that the targets of these policies are undocumented residents, not individuals who are authorized to live and work in America. The matter is not so simple, however, and neither are its execution or effects.

How immigration policy affects agriculture

This is the most popular sector for discussing the effects of a strict anti-immigration/active deportation policy, and with good reason. The simple statistic that 35 percent of our current farm labor force is made up of unauthorized workers points to a massive ripple effect in our agricultural economy and all that it touches (read: everything) were all those workers to magically disappear.

But that’s the fairy-tale vision of the elimination of unauthorized labor. The reality is far messier, far more immediate, and far wider-reaching. Both authorized and unauthorized workers are affected by increasingly hostile federal attitudes to their labor. Raids and crackdowns are violently disruptive for all workers, regardless of status, as well as their families and communities. The promise (or the fear) of them will have an immediate impact on all workers’ willingness to simply show up to work. Thanks to the Obama administration’s increased scrutiny on unauthorized labor, the number of foreign-born farm workers in America has already been shrinking; the Trump administration’s position promises to compound the effect.

Virtually all of the newly open agriculture jobs will pay poverty-line wages, and they won’t be opening up in the areas of the country where unemployment is the highest, as Alabama has proven. Unfortunately for anyone worried that unauthorized laborers are taking jobs away from citizens, that means that these open positions are unlikely to be filled — at least, not by currently unemployed American citizens. Otherwise, maybe Trump’s own winery wouldn’t have needed to request temporary worker visas for its employees.

In fact, it’s likely that Trump’s anti-immigration policies will result in even more jobs disappearing: As Kathleen Merrigan, executive director of sustainability at George Washington University and a former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture under Obama, told Eater’s Dana Hatic, “Farmers, particularly those working in specialty crops, have already moved some of their operations outside of the country because they can’t find adequate labor.” Dave Runsten, policy director for the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, explained to Hatic that the effect of Trump’s immigration decisions will accelerate that process: “As wages go up and the availability of labor goes down ... The largest farms will mechanize or move to Mexico or” — as at Trump Winery — “get Trump to let them import guest workers.”

How immigration policy affects restaurants

Many of the same domino effects that will hit the agriculture sector will be felt in the restaurant world: Even an increased fear of raids and deportation will drive both undocumented and documented workers away from their jobs, and restaurateurs will have a very hard time filling those vacancies. Trump’s threat to withhold federal funding from cities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities (generally known as sanctuary cities) will only serve to magnify restaurant workers’ fears.

As with agriculture, a diminished restaurant labor pool will translate into fewer jobs, not more. But the restaurant industry is more fragmented than agriculture (more than half of all restaurants are independent small businesses) so it will take longer to adjust, and the effects will be felt by consumers in a more intimate way: Changes in the agricultural economy translates into higher grocery prices, but a major shift in the restaurant economy means your favorite local spots will close, your friends and neighbors will be out of work, and the empty storefronts that remain will affect the overall trajectory of commercial and residential real estate.

Once the restaurant industry does manage to adjust to its diminished labor pool, the new business model is likely to be motivated by efficiency, which means centralization and automation — which means the smaller number of jobs will be made even smaller.

What’s going to happen?

The other side of the coin when it comes to the Trump administration’s position against unauthorized labor is a focus on affirmatively proving that workers are eligible for employment. The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) prevents employers from discriminating against employees (or potential employees) on the basis of their origin and citizenship, and also mandates the standards employers are required to use when assessing the legality of hiring any individual. Right now, employers are not allowed to seek independent proof of an employee’s authorization status, and are required to accept any I-9 documentation that “reasonably appears to be genuine and to relate to the employee.” Changing this would require a legislative overhaul of the INA, which would be a massive — and highly contentious — political undertaking.

In the meantime, there are other affirmative verification methods, but they’re imperfect at best, and damaging at worst. E-Verify, the screening process most often cited as the best option, has a staggeringly high rate of error: Jessie Hahn, a labor and policy attorney at the National Immigrant Justice Fund, told Eater’s Amy McCarthy that the overall rate of false positives is 0.3 percent, but for Green Card holders that number leaps to 1.2 percent, and for work-authorized non-citizens, over 8 percent. That translates to over 4.5 million legal workers who would be prevented from holding jobs, citizens and non-citizens alike.

Ironically, the result of enforcing proof of legal employability seems likely to be more illegal employment, even among authorized workers: In states where E-Verify is required at all employers, like Arizona, Hahn pointed out that payroll tax revenues decreased, but sales tax revenues didn’t change much. "What analysts concluded was that workers weren't paying income taxes, but they were still earning money to spend,” Hahn told McCarthy. “The cash economy was growing because, obviously, people were still working, but they were being taken off the books and outside of the tax system."

What can be done?

For the uncountable number of unauthorized immigrants living in America — and for the federal government — there are only two paths out of illegal residency: citizenship, and deportation. The overwhelming consensus among restaurant and agriculture industry analysts, economists, and other experts on labor and immigration is that the optimal course of action is to make it easy for people follow the first of those two courses, and create a clear and welcoming route to citizenship for people who may be in the country illegally. As the U.S. learned in the late 1980s, after President Ronald Reagan’s sweeping amnesty policy made it possible for nearly 3 million immigrants to obtain American citizenship, providing unauthorized workers with a path to citizenship has measurable social and fiscal benefits.

The other option, federal immigration raids and deportation, will have the opposite outcome. Our economy is a complex, delicate machine, and a blunt-instrument approach to resolving unauthorized employment will have cascading effects — many of which we can predict, though there are likely to be far more. The cost in human dignity will be great, and for many people, that’s enough to turn them against the current administration’s position. For restaurateurs, farmers, and virtually everyone else whose daily economies rely on immigrant labor, their position on raids and deportation is clear: It’s bad, and it’s bad for business. We should believe them.

Amy McCarthy contributed to this story.

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