Many Philly restaurant kitchens are staffed primarily with Latino immigrants

Clarification appended

Nearly all the workers recently let go from Marc Vetri’s restaurants because of E-Verify screening have already found new jobs, according to sources familiar with the situation. The group of around 30 people, many undocumented immigrants from Mexico, did not make it through the corporate on-boarding process that kicked in when the Urban Outfitters acquisition of Vetri Family officially closed on Feb. 1.

Representatives from Urban Outfitters confirmed the exodus last week. “Unfortunately some [Vetri employees] did not pass one or more [of our standard background checks], and as a result, we could not offer them employment at URBN,” the company said in a written statement.

Nobody was really worried that they’d stay out of work, though.

“My guess is they will all be employed again within three weeks,” said a Philadelphia restaurant manager who helped place the recently fired workers in other kitchens and dining rooms around the city.

“All except two of them have already found new positions in Philly,” said another person close to the situation. “All they have to do is say they worked for Vetri, and they don’t even need other references. They get hired right away.”

“I was there, I was talking with Jeff [Benjamin] and Marc [Vetri] when they were trying to figure out a way to keep these people on. At the end of the day, it didn’t happen. But believe me, they truly tried,” said a different individual.

Notice: While several people confirmed this state of affairs, none would speak on the record, whether they were inside the Vetri organization or at another company. The reticence makes sense. Saying your restaurant or employer has hired those workers — ostensibly immigrants who did not have valid work visas — or even saying you helped find them jobs is essentially admitting to breaking the law.

But it’s a readily acknowledged fact that undocumented immigrants make up a huge percentage of workers in the restaurant industry, in Philadelphia and around the U.S.

‘Every restaurant in America would shut down’

Anthony Bourdain, the outspoken chef, author and TV star (No Reservations, The Layover, Parts Unknown), has painted a doomsday scenario for the industry if all of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants from Mexico were to be deported, something Donald Trump has made a major platform of his campaign.

“Every restaurant in America would shut down” if Trump’s deportation plan was implemented, he told SiriusXM’s StandUP With Pete Dominick last fall.

Chef José Andrés, a native of Spain who immigrated to the United States and has since built a restaurant empire that stretches from Washington DC to Beverly Hills, made the same point.

“Who is going to be feeding America if we kick everybody that is feeding America out?” he said during a speech at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s annual conference in October.

While most policymakers agree widespread deportation is neither likely to be approved nor logistically achievable, a more feasible plank in Trump’s immigration plan is the one that calls for mandatory nationwide implementation of E-Verify.

First implemented in 1997 and expanded in 2007, the free online system lets employers confirm the work eligibility status of potential employees by cross-checking identifying information with databases maintained by the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration.

Not just Vetri

Though more than 600,000 companies across the country use E-Verify, it’s only currently fully mandatory in eight states, most in the South and Midwest (15 other states, including Pennsylvania, do require it for government workers).

Many restaurant chains that do business across the country, like Chipotle and Chili’s, use the service in all of their locations, including those in the Philadelphia area. Likewise, Urban Outfitters is a nationwide operation that has a company policy of E-Verify screening for all employees, which trickled down to the Vetri Family restaurant group after it was acquired.

But Vetri is not the only Philadelphia-based restaurateur to use the screening. Online job listings show that Jose Garces has implemented E-Verify for several of his New York City restaurants, although he does not yet use the service in Philadelphia, according to a Mexican immigrant who has worked for the company. Garces Group did not respond to a request for clarification of its policies. Nor did representatives from Stephen Starr’s organization, which sources say has also started to use E-Verify in New York.

“Vetri is getting singled out because it happened all at once,” said the Mexican worker, “but look at Garces — he is doing it little by little. Why isn’t he on the spot?”

Asked why those organizations might be adopting E-Verify for some cities and not others, a different Mexican restaurant worker suggested the employment base in New York is populated with fewer undocumented immigrants than Philadelphia’s.

“Probably 80 to 90 percent of immigrants in Philly are here illegally,” he estimated.

On the payroll

These days, even workers who don’t have legal work visas are paid above board and are on the payroll, as opposed to the under-the-table cash payouts common 10 and 20 years ago.

It was a crackdown by DHS around 2010 that sparked the change, according to one Philadelphia restaurateur. That year, one Maryland restaurant owner was ordered to forfeit more than $700,000 in assets, and several others were indicted and forced to turn over their properties as penalty. Since then, most restaurants have changed their hiring policies, and now just about every person employed in a kitchen or dining room is on the books.

“If we hire a Latino, we don’t treat them any different, they fill out the form, and they go to work,” said a Philadelphia restaurant owner. “Why would I ask for additional info from one person and not another? That would be discrimination.”

“Even the pizza places put you on payroll now,” one Mexican immigrant said. “There are not many places you can be under the table anymore. Maybe a little corner grocery store or deli.”

Since they’re on the payroll, all these undocumented immigrants are no longer cheap; they’re getting paid the same wages as everyone else. Why do they still make up such a large proportion of manual labor positions in restaurants? Because they’re willing to take the jobs in the first place.

“People who come from other countries are looking for a better life, so they won’t complain,” said another Mexican native who has been promoted to the point where he is now in charge of hiring for some Philadelphia restaurants.

“Last week I hired somebody who was born in America to be a dishwasher, and he didn’t last one day. Are you serious? In restaurants in Mexico, we don’t even have dishwashing machines, everything is done by hand. Here, it’s putting plates on a rack and moving it through a machine. It’s the easiest job in the world. ”

A boon for Social Security

Not only are the undocumented immigrants being paid the same wages as anyone else, they’re also paying the same taxes as everyone else. But since most of them do not file tax returns, it’s money lost to them forever — and a boon to Social Security’s bottom line.

A 2013 report by the Social Security Administration estimated “unauthorized” immigrants’ net contribution to be as high as $12 billion, and growing:

“While unauthorized immigrants worked and contributed as much as $13 billion in payroll taxes to the OASDI program in 2010, only about $1 billion in benefit payments during 2010 are attributable to unauthorized work. Thus, we estimate that earnings by unauthorized immigrants result in a net positive effect on Social Security financial status generally, and that this effect contributed roughly $12 billion to the cash flow of the program for 2010. We estimate that future years will experience a continuation of this positive impact on the trust funds.”

Per the above, many of the “illegals” Trump and others accuse of dragging down the economy are actually paying into a pension system they will never get to use.

Path to change

Pending a Supreme Court decision, the path to legal work visas for hard-working immigrants could soon become easier.

In 2014, President Obama issued an executive order to expand an existing program — known as Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) — to allow more people who have assimilated into lawful society to obtain work permits.

More than 1.1 million people who were brought here as children under the age of 16 have already been approved under DACA since 2012, according to USCIS data (8,000 of them were in Pennsylvania).

“My friend who came here when he was 16, it took him seven years to get his papers,” said a Philadelphia Mexican restaurant employee who is currently working on his own DACA application. “It isn’t easy. You have to prove you went to school. Prove you held jobs. Prove you never got in trouble. And even then you’re not necessarily getting approved.”

The expansion that would allow more young immigrants and many foreign-born parents whose children are American citizens to take advantage of the program was stalled when the State of Texas challenged Obama’s order, and a judge issued an injunction. The Obama Administration appealed, and the case is now pending in front of the Supreme Court. Though the Court announced in January it planned to hear the case this summer, the vacancy left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia means the docket is now somewhat up in the air.

Sanctuary city

One reason there are many undocumented immigrants in Philadelphia is because it is one of 300 jurisdictions in the U.S. that are referred to as “sanctuary cities,” which essentially means municipal officials will not automatically turn over information to or collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Just before his term ended, former Mayor Michael Nutter reversed Philly’s sanctuary policies, something that struck fear into many immigrants’ hearts.

“Before he left, Nutter signed the order so police could send you to ICE right away. Many of us became afraid to even leave our houses to go to work because of that,” one Mexican restaurant worker said.

But one of Mayor Jim Kenney’s very first acts after taking over was to rescind Nutter’s action and restore sanctuary status. And just last week, Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez said she was introducing a bill to implement a municipal ID program, under which undocumented immigrants would be issued a photo ID usable to open a bank account, buy an apartment or check into an emergency room.

If the bill does become law — and similar attempts have failed in the past — not everyone would take advantage.

“I’m guessing around 50 percent of immigrants would get one,” said a native-born Mexican who owns his own restaurant in Philadelphia. “But the other 50 percent, they would be worried. Because what happens if the law changes again or different people are elected who don’t like it? Then they already have all your information on file; they know where you live and where you work.”

‘Everyone needs to bleed’

Having a municipal ID wouldn’t help with E-Verify screening anyway, and many industry watchers think it likely use of the service will continue to spread over the next several years.

A 2013 survey by the National Restaurants Association found that 80 percent of restaurateurs using E-Verify would recommend it. The trade organization also supports a federal law requiring businesses to use the system, “to free them from the challenge of complying with different state and local laws requiring E-Verify.”

One Mexican immigrant in Philadelphia is actually hoping mandatory E-Verify happens, because it would force restaurant owners to face the facts about their staff.

“Before we see real change or reform, someone has to close down a restaurant or two because they don’t have enough people to staff it,” he said. “I can guarantee you many restaurants in Philadelphia would close [if it was implemented]. Probably they would reopen eventually, but not before it cost a lot of money. Everyone needs to bleed out first.

“The people who own restaurants, their pockets need to get hurt. Then they will do something about it.”

Note: This piece has been amended so that the words “illegal” and “unauthorized” are not used to describe people who are in this country without official documentation.

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the membership program. She is a former food...