Aliens in the Kitchen
March 10, 2017
Remember, remember always that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists. Franklin Roosevelt, 1938
We used to call ourselves a nation of immigrants. We still are that – more so now perhaps than ever. You may be tired of hearing about immigrants and immigration as that subject is on the front pages of newspapers nearly every day.
Many Latinos didn’t show up for work on February 15th, “the day without immigrants,” and many restaurants in the city closed, partially in solidarity and partly because they couldn’t open without their immigrant staff who didn’t go to work that day. It was to have been a demonstration of how dependent we are on immigrant labor – at least in the food business.
We are living in an unkind age in which some believe that newly arrived people are harming those of us born in the U.S.
The argument right now, although now aggravated, is not new at all. American history has been filled with controversies over immigration and periods of xenophobia – whether the targeted immigrants were Irish Catholics, Eastern European Jews, or as now Middle-Easterners and Africans, Latinos and others.
I have no wisdom to add to what has been said and written during recent years and especially during recent weeks but I have a lot of day-to-day experience with immigrants.
In 1989 when I decided to open Marvelous Market I was not acquainted with the lengths to which foreigners had to go to get employed here even though government scrutiny was lax then. I began to meet people who lived in Mt. Pleasant and a few suburban neighborhoods. They lived in apartments often with seven, even ten other people.
It was possible then to find those who had had cooking experience or said they had; but no one had bread baking experience. The people we hired were hard-working quick learners, however.
And so they came – men who presented American names like Douglas that they supported with dodgy identification cards, or sometimes counterfeit Social Security cards and even driver’s licenses. After getting jobs with us they offered their brothers, friends, wives and even high-school aged children for part-time jobs. And feeling more secure Robert would ask to be called Raul and Douglas would re-introduce himself, this time as Asiro which of course were their real names.
Miguel Baez from El Salvador, Cesar Cfuentis from Guatamala, Eugene Sampah from the Ivory Coast, Dahmane Benarbane from Algeria – an international potpourri of men and women nearly all of whom had arrived in the U.S. under questionable circumstances and who (I hasten to add in case the immigration people are looking) eventually became legal.
Becoming legal – that’s a story. My partner Eun Yim who runs Bread Furst came to the U.S. in 1977. Her family paid a broker $10,000 to get their visas. Nonetheless it took three years.
When I opened Marvelous Market fake IDs were easily available on the streets of Mt. Pleasant. I fantasized then that all the Social Security withholding we sent to fictitious accounts would help fund the trust fund for an additional few decades.
In those days there was an industry of lawyers who offered to help people who had arrived illegally get green cards that made them legal. You can imagine how much they charged and often they took their fees and did nothing.
Bread Furst’s chef, Robert Dalliah, came to Washington from Gambia in 1993 on a student visa to attend Montgomery College. He got a job at the Original Pancake House in Bethesda to support himself and then a second job doing pastry at Marvelous Market. He stopped being a student in 1995 but continued working. In 1997, he became the back cook at The BreadLine when it opened.
One day in 1998 he mentioned that he wouldn’t be coming to work the following day. Knowing how dependable he was, I demanded to know why. He said simply, “I am going to be deported tomorrow.”
I called Elliott Lichtman, an impeccible lawyer who specializes in immigration matters and over the next year or so we went through the arduous process by which Dalliah became a legal resident. I don’t know that such a thing would be possible now.
Politicians rail about our porous boarders. It still amazes me that the same people who get so hot under the collar about immigrants often are those who espouse the old theories of American exceptionalism that ought to help them understand why those who live in other lands want to be here.
I don’t know how pourous our borders used to be but they are hardly that now. It is very hard for non-citizens from many countries even to travel to the U.S. much less immigrate. And the un-American practices now being adopted by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement to divest us of immigrants already here remind me of the World War II roundup of Japanese that began in 1942.
Now: A Los Angeles immigrant arrested as he drops off his daughter at her school.
Now: A young woman brought to this country as a child arrested in Jackson Mississippi after speaking up for immigrants. (Her father and brother had been arrested days before.)
Last week: ICE agents raided homes and workplaces in Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.
Mr. Trump talks about “getting rid of the bad actors,” but in fact under his administration, ICE is going far beyond immigrants with histories of serious crime and is beginning to enforce immigration laws aggressively with a strategy not known and perhaps non-existent. And if Congress agrees to Mr. Trump’s request to add 15,000 agents who knows how aggressive the agency will become?
Is this what we want of America?
There is such passion in this country. Mr. Trump did what he could last year to make “illegal immigrants” the Willy Horton of the election year. He and his angry or frightened or bewildered supporters argue that these illegal people take jobs away from real Americans. But in my experience that’s wrong.
In the 27 years I have been in the food business, there has always been a shortage of cooks, wait staff, cleaners, dishwashers, etc. We in the food businesses are looking all the time for staff. Cooks are in great demand and new restaurants are always raiding existing ones to find staff.
In the three Washington food businesses I have begun as well as in every other American food business I know, newly arrived immigrants do a lot of the work. They are the bussers clearing tables and pouring water. Frequently they can’t understand English well enough to point customers to the washroom.
Look into the kitchen of any restaurant or into the eyes of someone sweeping the floors and you will see Spanish-speaking people doing the hard, repetitious, exacting work of food preparation and service.
Whenever I see an industrious cleaner in an office building or a gym, whenever I am served by a smiling person in a coffee job, I pitch him or her to come talk to us about a job at Bread Furst.
Some immigration opponents argue that the availability of immigrants depresses all wages. Not in my experience.
In my experience in Washington immigrants are not taking jobs from native-born Americans. I presume that is equally true in the fields of Texas and California where each year farmers must bring into the country as temporary workers to help with harvests.
We have always had a nativist impulse in America and anti-immigrant periods before. But never before have we tried as we do now on our southern border to wall ourselves off.
Our new Attorney General has just given approval to using Guantanomo once again. Are we now going to create little Guantanamos in our country to hold people until we can find countries to which to send our farm workers, restaurant and construction workers – and for what? For taking their lives in their hands to come across our borders to work hard to earn a living wage much of which they then send back to their families in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico.
It’s a crime to come here illegally. But why has it become so important a crime? Something terrible has happened. We are forgetting who we are.