From: Philadelphia Inquirer
Posted on Sun, Feb. 12, 2006
Illegal aliens: 'Dirty little secret' of restaurant world
Those who work in the food business and elsewhere are being urged to strike Tuesday to prove their role in the economy
By Gaiutra Bahadur
Inquirer Staff Writer
Illegal immigrants in the Philadelphia labor force - described by one Center City restaurateur as the "dirty little secret" of his industry - want to make themselves seen, heard and missed on Valentine's Day.
Local activists have urged undocumented workers throughout the region, particularly Mexicans who staff the city's restaurants, to strike on Tuesday, one of the biggest dining days of the year.
Organizers say the work stoppage, by a population typically on tiptoe, is to demonstrate the economic contribution of undoc
umented "shadow workers" and to protest a bill in Congress that would make illegal immigration a felony punishable by prison time.
"The call is to the employers, to make them realize they have a stake, and that they need to weigh in," said Ricardo Diaz, the independent organizer who sparked the effort.
Advocates for illegal immigrants around the country have toyed with the idea of a real-world staging of A Day Without a Mexican, a 2004 feature film about the impact on California when its Latino residents disappear.
Tuesday's effort, billed as A Day Without an Immigrant, would be the first such strike by illegal immigrants anywhere in the United States, according to advocates.
Valentine's Day is the second-most-popular day of the year for dining out, according to the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association. A number of restaurateurs in Center City, who asked not to be identified because they employ illegal immigrants, said they would be crippled by a strike.
n"It would be a terrible hardship for us," the owner of a Fitler Square bistro said. "I don't know how we would be able to function."
The restaurateur said that a "Dear Employer" form letter, prepared by organizers to help workers explain their absence on Feb. 14, was faxed to him this week. It asked for his support in defeating the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act drafted by Reps. James Sensenbrenner (R., Wis.) and Peter King (R., N.Y.) and passed by the House of Representatives in December. The Senate is to discuss immigration next month.
Word of the labor action has spread through flyers, the campaign's bilingual Web site, and Spanish and English radio. Diaz claims 1,000 potential strikers.
Peter Bloom, an organizer with Juntos, a Mexican community group in South Philadelphia, is skeptical that many workers would respond. They are paralyzed by the fear of deportation, he said. And apparently unfounded rumors of raids
by U.S. immigration agents two weeks ago already caused many Mexicans to stay home and lose a day of pay.
When the Fitler Square owner asked his four undocumented dishwashers whether they would strike, they promised, "We wouldn't do that to you,"
Two steakhouse owners said they assembled their kitchen staffs and warned them that they would be fired if they didn't show up.
"I support their message, but they're hurting themselves by not working," said one.
The owners contend that Center City could not sustain its current restaurant boom without illegal workers to bus tables, wash dishes and prepare food.
"It's very difficult to find people to do restaurant work," said a steakhouse owner, whose ads for kitchen jobs have gone unanswered.
"These are jobs that pay minimum wage to $10 an hour," he said. "It's not the type of job that [American] people relocate for."
r owner sounded the same refrain about Mexican workers, many of whom did relocate, by crossing deserts and fording rivers in the company of human smugglers called coyotes. "These people are eager to work, and they're hard-working people," said the owner of a Rittenhouse Square establishment.
"I haven't seen a single restaurant that doesn't hire illegal immigrants," said Alejandro Cordova, co-owner of La Esperanza, a Mexican restaurant in Lindenwold.
Cordova should know. He landed a job washing dishes within days of crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally in 1992. It was the first of a series of jobs, including cook and busboy, he has held in nearly a dozen New Jersey and New York restaurants.
Illegal immigration "is a fact," said Cordova, who is now a U.S.
citizen. "We can't hide it anymore."
Undocumented workers are so essential to the food industry nationwide that the National Restaurant Association has made stopping the Sensenbren
ner-King bill its top priority in Congress this year.
'We are equal people'
"We value the work done by our employees, documented or not," said John Gay, the group's chief of government affairs and public policy in Washington.
"It's not like they broke into the bank to rob it," said Gay. "They broke into the bank to sweep the floor."
The Sensenbrenner-King bill would increase fines against employers who hire illegal workers, in some cases by tens of thousands of dollars per violation. It would also classify as "alien smugglers" the groups - including employers, churches and charities - that knowingly and "with reckless disregard" hire or help the immigrants. Migrants would be subject to criminal prosecution.
The restaurant association and most immigrant advocates back alternative legislation, drafted by Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.), that ultimately would allow undocumented immigrants to
become legal residents.
Since 2000, the Mexican population in Philadelphia has tripled to about 7,500, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Shops stocked with dried chilies, tamarind soft drinks, and pan dulce claim space alongside Vietnamese hoagie shops and gourmet cheese emporiums in the Italian Market.
Many immigrants are from the same town, San Mateo, in the Mexican state of Puebla. From rowhouses in South Philadelphia, they walk or bicycle the same path every day to jobs in Center City.
More than 50 of those men and women recently piled into a back room at La Tienda, a Washington Avenue grocery, to learn the risks of partaking in Tuesday's protest, which also calls for a noon rally in front of the National Constitution Center.
Ami Laura Cahn, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, assured them of their right to demonstrate. But, she said, they could be fired for taking the day off without permission - and immigration agents could show up.
If that happens, &
quot;Don't give information you don't have to," Cahn said.
"And don't run away," she warned: It arouses suspicion and encourages police to become involved.
Despite the sobering advice, Cabrera, who would not give his first name, said he would participate in A Day Without an Immigrant.
"I want to support the protest," said the 21-year old, who makes sushi for $10 an hour at an Old City champagne bar. "We are immigrants who come here only to work."
"I think we are equal people," said Castillo, 31, a landscaper. "We have rights."
Contact staff writer Gaiutra Bahadur at 215-854-2601 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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