August 21, 2019 5:00 AM ET
The lunch rush is over at a popular, cozy restaurant in a city somewhere in Missouri. The owner, Lynn, is sipping a glass of pinot grigio as her cooking crew cleans up.
Like thousands of other restaurants across America, Lynn’s kitchen is staffed mainly with unauthorized Latino workers. She agreed to openly discuss this employment conundrum if NPR agreed not to give her last name, identify her restaurant, name the city, or even specify the type of cuisine. Like a lot of employers these days, she doesn’t want to attract the attention of federal immigration agents.
When asked how many eating establishments have undocumented workers in the kitchen in her Midwestern city, Lynn states flatly: “A hundred percent. You cannot hire American here.”
Across the country, immigrants who are in the country unlawfully often do manual, low-paying jobs, and employers say they have no choice but to rely on them. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has vowed to ramp up workplace raids targeting this shadow workforce.
Two weeks ago, Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided seven chicken processing plants in Mississippi. Agents rounded up 680 workers in one of the largest workplace enforcement actions in contemporary history. They were earning $11 to $12 an hour to dismember poultry — dangerous, brutal, repetitive labor.
The raids have resurrected an old debate: if not immigrants, then who will do the tough jobs in America?
Cooking chicken in Lynn’s restaurant kitchen is not as hard as processing chickens in an agro-business plant, but nonetheless she says it’s challenging finding workers.
“It’s hard work,” she says. “You have to be able to stand on your feet all day. It’s not a good paying job.”
She pays dishwashers $11.50 an hour, $16 for cooks. That’s more than the federal minimum wage, but they get no insurance, vacations or sick pay.
The kitchen manager, Jaime, has been using a fake Social Security number since he came to the U.S. from Mexico 21 years ago. He says he paid an underground seller $60 for it and didn’t ask any questions.
“We had to pay to get a Social,” he says. “We know [that] is illegal,” he says, and added that “we don’t have that, we not gonna have jobs.” Jaime also agreed to speak frankly if his surname was not used.