Who's coming to the aid of undocumented workers amid restaurant closures and lay-offs

The hospitality industry relies on over 1 million undocumented workers, who are operating without a safety net

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published March 31, 2020 6:30PM (EDT)

Kitchen workers wear surgical masks and gloves as they prepare food (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Kitchen workers wear surgical masks and gloves as they prepare food (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

If you would like to support service industry workers across the United States you can contribute to The Restaurant Workers' Community Foundation Relief Fund.

The American restaurant industry depends on the work of millions of undocumented immigrants — from farmers to food suppliers to kitchen staff to stay running. But as many states have mandated the closure of or reduction of services provided by restaurants as a way to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, many undocumented employees are facing layoffs and uncertain futures without any form of social safety net. 

Ricardo Rodriguez is the chef and owner of WHISK in Chicago. Rodriguez was born in Mexico City and was brought to the U.S. without papers when he was 7 years old.

"I'm 35 now, so all my life, I grew up here," Rodriguez said. "The first year that DACA was passed, I applied and got approval because I met all the requirements. I was here before I was 15 and have no criminal records." 

DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was a policy approved by President Barack Obama in 2012 that allowed some undocumented individuals who had been brought into the country as children to receive a two-year period of deferred action from deportion and become eligible for a work permit. 

As a DACA recipient, Rodriguez would be eligible to file for unemployment insurance — like the over three million people who applied last week — and could be eligible for the $1,200 relief checks that are part of the COVID-19 stimulus package, but undocumented kitchen workers are not. 

"Unfortunately, they don't have any kind of safety net," Rodriguez said. "Everybody is telling restaurant owners, 'Oh, your workers should apply for this, and they can get this and that.' We can't be like, 'Oh, they can't because they don't have papers,' so that's the situation everybody's in right now." 

The Pew Research Center estimates there are 7.5 million undocumented workers in the United States concentrated in construction, agriculture, and the hospitality industry. In 2014, about 1.1 million, or 10%, of restaurant workers were undocumented. 

Though some are employed through under-the-table means — like falsified social security numbers or cash-only payments — they are an integral part of the industry. From the 2014 satirical cult film "A Day Without a Mexican" to the 2017 "A Day Without Immigrants" strikes, a lot of thought has been given, at least by some, to what the country would look like without their labor. 

Some organizations are trying to step in to recognize their contributions and provide some kind of financial support. 

On March 18, RAISE — Revolutionizing Asian American Immigrant Stories on the East Coast, an immigrant advocacy group based in New York City — and  Sahra Nguyen, the founder of Nguyen Coffee Supply, launched the Undocu Worker's Fund. 

The initiative supports undocumented workers in the service industry who will not have the ability to apply for unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 health crisis and mandated restaurant closures. 

"The response so far has been incredible," said Audrey Pan, a community organizer with RAISE. "We've had over 150 people reach out needing assistance. We've also had many concerned community members step up to donate, reshare our posts, and some have been inspired to start their own community funds." 

According to Pan, many of the restaurant workers who have submitted an eligibility form for the Undocu Workers Fund, have reported that they don't have savings and live paycheck to paycheck. Similar initiatives have sprouted up across the United States. 

In Los Angeles, Va'La Hospitality has launched No Us Without You, a food pantry for undocumented workers who are provided enough food for a family of four to eat for a week. Trigg Brown and his partners at Brooklyn's Win Son and Win Son Bakery, Josh Wu and Jesse Shapell, have launched a fund specifically aimed at gathering money to help support their employees who are undocumented for the restaurant industry.

I spoke with the organizers of nearly a dozen other independently organized restaurant industry member relief funds and food banks who said that immigration status is not a factor in how they will award their small-scale grants or distribute essentials like food and toiletries; however, they did not advertise that fact — and asked that they not be specifically named — for fear of ICE raids. 

"ICE agents are continuing to make arrests in some of the regions hardest hit by the virus like New York and California," said Pan. 

As the Los Angeles Times reported on March 17, David Martin, the director of Enforcement and Removal Operations for ICE in Los Angeles,  said the ICE would continue to operate as usual. 

"We're out here trying to protect the public by getting these criminal aliens off the street and out of our communities," he told the paper. "Asking us to stop doing that basically gives those criminals another opportunity to maybe commit more crimes, to create more victims."

This statement highlights how food banks and small-scale grants — while deeply important in the short-term — are band-aid solutions for obvious systematic issues that leave undocumented workers particularly susceptible during this point in time. 

Sanaa Abrar is the advocacy director of United We Dream, the largest youth-led immigrant advocacy organization in the United States. She says that in the immediate future, undocumented workers need access to healthcare in the midst of this global pandemic. 

"At this point, because of the failure of Congress to include all immigrants in a federal package, now it's on governors, and it's on state leaders to take action," Abrar said. "So one example of this that we just saw was Governor Cuomo in New York, expanded the definition of emergency Medicaid to include COVID-19 testing and treatment. Undocumented immigrants have access to emergency Medicaid in all states, but not all states identify COVID-19 testing under the emergency provisions."

Pan agrees this is an important step, and suggests others. 

"Right now, what we need to do is to demand our governments to extend emergency relief measures such as grants, free testing, and paid sick leave to all residents, regardless of immigration status," she said. "Cities also need to  develop relief packets that include a moratorium on rent, mortgage, and utility payments to abate financial strains on households amid the growing economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic." 

Undocumented workers, she said, need to be included in these bills. 

"They are a vital part of our society and are our community members," she said. 

If you would like to support service industry workers across the United States you can contribute to The Restaurant Workers' Community Foundation Relief Fund.


By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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