Obama Administration to Restaurateurs: No More Illegal Workers

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>It's the restaurant industry's worst-kept and perhaps most notorious secret—look to the kitchens, find a deluge of undocumented workers. But immigration enforcement has surged since the 2008 election, a move that has included a crackdown on restaurant hiring practices, The New York Times reports. Although a hard-line stance against illegal employees may cause menu prices to rise and some businesses to close, workers' rights groups support the crackdown. "We don't think a restaurant should exist if it doesn't pay legal wages," one public policy director told the Times.

Such restaurants may begin changing their ways in light of the recent enforcement:

Until recently, immigration enforcement had been notoriously lax, with a kind of universal wink at kitchens filled with employees working either off the books or with false documents, government officials and industry experts say.

But that is quickly changing, based on the rising number of investigations and the penalties being sought against restaurateurs.

In June, the owner of two Maryland restaurants who pleaded guilty to hiring and harboring illegal immigrants was ordered to forfeit to the government more than $700,000 in assets -- in addition to his motorcycle -- and faces up to 10 years in prison. In November, a restaurateur in Mississippi who had pleaded guilty to hiring illegal immigrants was sentenced to a year in prison and a year of supervised release. Combined fines in the case, shared among several defendants, amount to $600,000.

Out of a total of about 12.7 million workers in the restaurant industry, an estimated 1.4 million -- both legal and illegal immigrants -- are foreign born, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to 2008 estimates from the Pew Hispanic Center, about 20 percent of the nearly 2.6 million chefs, head cooks and cooks are illegal immigrants. Among the 360,000 dishwashers, 28 percent are undocumented, according to the estimates.

Read the full story at The New York Times.

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John Hendel is a writer based in Washington, DC, and a former producer at The Atlantic.

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