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

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.)

By Helen Rosner for EATER
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