What Undocumented Workers Really Want

Fawn Johnson
National Journal

HUNTSVILLE, Texas—Brad Bailey knows he has his work cut out for him. He sips a beer and watches as members of the Republican Party of Walker County mingle before their annual Ronald Reagan dinner. It’s an all-white, well-heeled group with a smattering of cowboy hats mixed in.

“What’s the crowd like?” he asks Tracy Sorensen, the party chairwoman. She tells him it’s mostly traditional conservatives, plus a few agitators for Ron Paul, the former House member and presidential candidate from Texas. “We’re glad to have you here,” she adds.

A restaurateur by trade, Bailey has become seasoned in politics as a city-council member in his hometown of Nassau Bay, Texas, and as someone who has made dozens of presentations to GOP groups around the state, all on the same subject: the urgent need for immigration reform. He is pushing for a way out of the party’s current dilemma in which voters view Republicans as obstructionists and naysayers.

Still, this is a crowd that likely sees immigration in terms of off-the-books work done by shady-looking Hispanics at day-laborer sites. They see foreigners as an invasive threat and worry about their having babies who automatically become citizens. And if given the choice, they probably would rather not talk about immigration at all.

With his conservative passion and a build reminiscent of a high school football player, Bailey looks like he could be a part of his audience. But it is his business experience that has given him a different perspective on immigration. He believes that Republicans will lose control of the state in five years if the GOP continues to make Hispanics feel unwelcome. To stop the bleeding, he says, Republicans need to change their philosophy by accepting some type of legalization for the current undocumented population, which is about 80 percent Latino.

“I challenge you to get to know some of these people. Know what they’re here for and what they ran from.”—Restaurateur Brad Bailey, speaking to a Republican group in southeast Texas

It’s not an easy sell, but Bailey has mastered the folksy lines that show the Walker County crowd he speaks their language. He tells them his dog’s name is “Dubya.” He complains about E-Verify, the electronic system that employers can use to check the legal status of their new hires. “I get hot under the collar when Republicans are screaming for [mandatory] E-Verify. That’s big government,” he says. “It’s a government-run software program. Folks, this will make the U.S. Postal Service look efficient.” That gets a laugh.

The audience grows less receptive, however, when he talks with affection about the Hispanic workers at his family’s restaurant, Sudie’s Seafood House, just outside Houston. Two years ago, at the height of the Republican presidential primary season, Bailey’s kitchen manager, Joel Hernandez, asked him how he could be a Republican when Republicans hate Hispanics. Bailey calls it his “Ah-ha!” moment. He realized then that the GOP needed to change. What he didn’t realize was how hard it would be to convince the party of that.

Bailey shows the group a photo of Hernandez and him together in Sudie’s kitchen. “I challenge you to get to know some of these people,” he says. “Know what they’re here for and what they ran from.”

If they could meet Hernandez, they’d find a mild-mannered man from El Salvador who greets you with a smile even when tending to four mammoth pots (marinara, broth, bacon bits, green beans) on a gas stove. He takes Sundays off from Sudie’s to go to church. He has been in the country for a while: In 1981, Hernandez paid a “fixer” $500 to bring him across the border. He was granted amnesty in 1986 under a law signed by President Reagan. He owns his home. He has been a naturalized citizen for 10 years.

“He is a great example of what a citizen can be,” Bailey says on the drive back to Houston. “How is that so bad?”

It’s an awkward and often unacknowledged truth that many immigrants in the United States haven’t gone the citizenship route that Hernandez has taken, illustrating the gulf between the immigrant population and the politicians who are angling for reform. About half of all the immigrants eligible to apply for citizenship don’t bother to do so, citing language and financial barriers and simple lack of interest, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. And for those who are here illegally, becoming a citizen one day might be the furthest thing from their minds. More than a dozen who spoke with NationalJournal said that they are far more concerned about ending President Obama’s deportations of people without papers.

Before Bailey founded his nonprofit group Texas Immigration Solution in 2011, his life was different. He worried about staffing the fried-fish booth at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the escalating price of catfish, and the razor-thin profit margin for his upscale steak restaurant. “What was life like before August 2011? Restaurant, restaurant, restaurant. It was a lot easier,” he says.

Bailey is like small-business owners all over the country who are stymied by out-of-date immigration laws and who couldn’t care less if their workers are foreign. His friends in the industry aren’t thinking about immigration as a nationwide supply-and-demand labor problem or as a political time bomb. They are simply trying to stay in business.

Andy Shallal and Brad Bailey could very likely come to blows over almost any issue besides immigration. They believe in immigrants not for idealistic or political reasons but because they work hard.

Bailey’s father, Paul, who bought Sudie’s in 1998, is a perfect example of an archconservative who sees the value of immigrant labor. He rants endlessly about “Obamacare.” He is an avid listener of conservative talk-show hosts Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. Yet he says he would put an immigrant worker on the grill line any day over a “spoiled” white worker. To hell with a green card, he says. “I don’t care if you bring me a green lizard. If you can work that line, that’s what I want.”


Two thousand miles away, Andy Shallal sits in a brightly colored circular booth in the back of his popular Washington restaurant Busboys and Poets. He orders hummus and french fries. He has spent the morning as a judge at a cooking contest in Virginia. When he isn’t involved in community events, he can frequently be found perched at his restaurant bar working on his laptop. A flamboyant dresser, Shallal is wearing an Al Jazeera baseball cap, a green scarf in the shape of an alligator, and a cardigan sweater-vest.

A liberal and an Obama supporter, he bills himself on Twitter as an “artist” and “activist.” He is heavily involved in a union-supported movement to organize restaurant workers. Unafraid of government regulation, he was at the forefront of the successful movement to ban smoking in the city’s restaurants in 2006. He detests Amazon and loves the poet Langston Hughes. In the middle of his interview with NJ, he rises to greet D.C.’s Democratic representative in Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who has been meeting with her staff in the back room.

Shallal is unusual in the restaurant industry in that he gives paid sick days and health benefits to his full-time workers. (Part-timers can buy insurance.) He sees health care as a right for everyone. He views his restaurant as a community center rather than a moneymaker. He hosts book signings and poetry readings at his restaurant, often at a profit loss. An Iranian immigrant himself, he started Busboys and Poets in 2005 when he felt the country pulling apart after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. His Middle Eastern heritage made him feel particularly isolated. “The whole idea of establishing this was seeking a community,” he says.

Shallal and Bailey could very likely come to blows over almost any issue besides immigration. Bailey believes unions are one of the biggest threats to American business, second only to Obama’s health care law. Shallal, meanwhile, is a union supporter and heartily advocates raising the minimum wage above the $9-an-hour rate that the president proposed recently.

Yet the liberal and the conservative restaurateurs agree the immigration system is thoroughly messed up. (Both occasionally use stronger adjectives.) They complain that immigration laws do nothing but hurt business, particularly food service. They both think immigrants contribute to the economy rather than leech from it. They both passionately want legalization for the undocumented population. “Immigration. My peeps. Go O,” Shallal tweeted during the immigration portion of Obama’s State of the Union address.

The reality of Bailey’s and Shallal’s lives are far removed from the debate on Capitol Hill. They believe in immigrants not for idealistic or political reasons but because they work hard. The two don’t pay them under the table, don’t exploit them, and don’t worry about taking jobs away from others. They’re happy to take applications from whites, but they say that almost never happens for kitchen work. While both rely on minimum-wage labor to stay in business, immigration reform wouldn’t do much for their bottom lines. But it would largely remove their worries about fake driver’s licenses or immigration raids. Down the road, though, a larger legal population could increase their customer base.

The raw economic case for legalization of undocumented immigrant workers is a few steps removed from the day-to-day operations of a restaurant. There is no question that bringing undocumented workers “out of the shadows” would boost the tax base considerably. The left-leaning Center for American Progress estimates that it would add $1.5 trillion to the nation’s cumulative gross domestic product over 10 years and increase tax revenue by close to $5 billion over three years. A more conservative estimate comes from a Joint Committee on Taxation and Congressional Budget Office analysis of a 2006 immigration proposal, which found that legalization would add a whopping $66 billion to federal coffers over 10 years. That can’t hurt.


When you walk into a restaurant, you are entering a highly stratified society. The “front of the house”—hostesses, waiters, bartenders—are the people you see. The “back of the house”—busboys, dishwashers, cooks—are out of sight. Their pay structures are different. Their lifestyles are different. Their racial makeup is different.

The industry is among the nation’s fastest-growing employment sectors. One of 12 private-sector employees work in restaurants, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Along with waitstaff in restaurants and bars, positions in food preparation and at fast-food establishments are projected to grow 9 percent by 2020. These workers aren’t going to get rich—their positions make up seven of the country’s 10 lowest-paying jobs, according to Saru Jayaraman, cofounder of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a national group that advocates for better working conditions in restaurants. Health insurance is a rarity. Advancement opportunities are few, and the work is often part-time.

These problems are less of an issue in the front of the house, particularly for employees at higher-end establishments. At “white table” restaurants, head chefs and servers can make upwards of $80,000 annually. Busboys make closer to $30,000 at the same places. At mid-range restaurants like Busboys in D.C. or Sudie’s in Texas, many waiters and hostesses aren’t making a career out of their jobs. Often they are students or recent graduates just looking for a way to pay the bills while they figure out what to do with their lives.

That’s not to say the front of the house has it easy. Jayaraman is quick to point out that too many waiters in casual or chain restaurants depend on their server jobs to make ends meet, and they earn subsistence wages. But it is also true that the front of the house has greater wage-growth potential, based on tipping, and its denizens have an easier time shifting jobs.

Racial segregation is a fact of life. The front of the house often is white, while the back of the house is populated with immigrants and other people of color. There is a $4-an-hour wage gap between white restaurant workers and minorities in the industry, according to Jayaraman.

Jayaraman has studied discrimination in restaurants. From 2006 to 2009, her group sent paired applicants, one white person and one person of color with equal credentials, to apply for 200 New York City restaurant jobs. They found that white applicants were twice as likely to get the good-paying front-of-the-house jobs in fine-dining restaurants, even when they put on thick accents. Jayaraman’s research also shows that workers of color are overrepresented in the lower-paying jobs—server, busser, dishwasher—and in fast-food establishments, which pay far less than fancy restaurants.

In the kitchen, life is different. It’s stuffy, steamy, and cramped, and you’re never too far from a fryer spitting oil. For the newly arrived immigrant, it is just the place to prove yourself. For the owner, an eager worker who doesn’t complain about the sweat, the grease fires, and the minimum wage is a godsend. His legal status in the country is so irrelevant that nobody mentions it.


“Everybody, everybody in the restaurant industry employs undocumented workers,” Jayaraman says. The most difficult restaurant jobs, such as dishwasher or fry cook, are usually filled by word-of-mouth references from other restaurant owners and the trusted kitchen staff, also a natural way of communicating in the immigrant community.

Managers say they are grateful for references because it minimizes disruption and turnover. The loss of a dishwasher mid-shift can be more devastating to a restaurant’s operations than a head chef or a hostess walking out. Even so, dishwashers are also paid the least. The median hourly wage for dishwashers is $8.73, about half of the national median of $16.27 an hour. Cooks make $10.65 an hour, and first-line supervisors make $14.21 an hour, according to the Labor Department.

Estimates of the number of unauthorized workers in the restaurant industry are hazy and probably too conservative. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, more than one of 10 restaurant workers are undocumented, and a much higher percentage work in the lowest-skilled back-of-the-house jobs. Undocumented dishwashers make up 27 percent of the workforce, and undocumented cooks are at 18 percent. By way of comparison, other private-sector jobs have less than 5 percent unauthorized workers.

In Southwest states such as Arizona or Texas, the back of the house is almost without exception Hispanic. A hiring manager at Sudie’s could not remember a single black or white applicant for a kitchen job. Even in melting pots such as New York and Washington, Hispanics are so prevalent in kitchens that native English-speaking restaurant managers must know “kitchen Spanish.”


Restaurant kitchens are rigorous but often friendly working environments. Cooks bark at each other in Spanish. Kitchen veterans consider their coworkers their family. NJ interviewed dozens of restaurant workers and immigrants from a variety of establishments to create a composite kitchen. Their names and some situational details have been changed to protect their identities.

It’s a Monday night, the slowest night of the week, and the restaurant is about half full. The dining room is warmly lit with yellow and red chandeliers. Behind the metal swinging kitchen doors, fluorescent lights give off a hard white gleam. A Spanish-language program blares on the radio. The back of the room is steamy with fry oil. The white linoleum floor is greasy. The reflections on the metal work counters give an ultrabright, buzzing quality to the air.

Jose is from Guatemala. He works the grill line—or rather, he dances it. He flies across the kitchen from the fryer to the oven, checking meat, shaking fry bins, hauling ice buckets. He has worked at this restaurant for 10 years, and its owners consider him nearly indispensable. He works 55 hours a week and makes $10 an hour. He is here illegally. He came to the United States in 2002, following his girlfriend (now wife) and her sister. The women came on visas, which have since expired. It’s not entirely clear how Jose got here.

Roy is from Mexico. He turns over a sieve of steaming clams into a small bucket that will be served on a plate. He garnishes it with lemon wedges and greens. He works two part-time restaurant jobs, and his hours fluctuate with the seasons. In one, he is a server. In this kitchen, he is a “runner”—delivering food and taking plates from tables. At peak times, he works 60-hour weeks. His first job in the United States was as a “porter,” a restaurant cleaner who comes in at midnight and works until dawn. He came to the United States in 1997 at the age of 15, after a month of coaching by traffickers, or “coyotes,” about how to get past the immigration authorities at the Tijuana, Mexico, port of entry. His father had paid the coyotes $3,000 to help the two of them get through the immigration screenings, but Roy was nervous on his first try and was detained. His father went on without him.

Sal is from El Salvador. He manages the kitchen. He has six cooks in the back of the house now, but it can grow to 10 at peak times. He has worked here since 1996 and managed the kitchen for the past four years. He came to the United States in 1982, at 30, under unclear circumstances. He got a legal permanent residency, or a green card, a few years later. He had little education, so he went to school and worked cleaning offices and in a kitchen. “I have no experience, I have to learn the system,” he says of his kitchen work. He has an adopted son back in El Salvador, whom he has been unsuccessful in bringing to the United States because the adoption was never formalized.

Raul is from Mexico. He works as a line cook in two kitchens. “I work daytime over there and nighttime here,” he says. He shows off the tin tubs of flour lined up behind the fryer—cornmeal for the fried pickles, peppered flour for the chicken fried steak. He gets Sundays off, and sometimes Thursdays. He has four daughters and owns his own home. He came to the United States in 1982 after paying a coyote $300 to get him across the border. He received amnesty in 1986 but he has yet to become a naturalized citizen. He has two brothers and two sisters who are here illegally. More than anything, he wants Obama’s health care law to take effect so he can have health insurance. He also says he is “hoping, hoping” that his undocumented family members can get legal status under an immigration-reform plan proposed recently by Obama.

Immigrants such as Jose, Raul, Roy, and Sal are a staple of the restaurant industry, but the policy considerations of citizenship and green-card quotas rest far from a kitchen worker’s daily thoughts. Cooks with papers and cooks without papers work side by side and don’t talk about it. They all want deportations to stop, but unlike the politicians, they aren’t worrying about paths to citizenship or being in the front or the back of the line. Undocumented immigrants simply want to know they can drive home after work without fear of being pulled over.

Isolation and fear are central parts of an illegal immigrant’s life. Roy started dating a woman in January. He waited almost a month to tell her that he was undocumented. “I feel ashamed,” he says. “I don’t think anyone understands. It’s like having cancer.”

Jose hasn’t seen his father in Guatemala in 10 years. A few years ago, his Guatemalan father-in-law died, and his wife was forced to send her regrets by mail. He hasn’t left his city since he got here. He drives without a license and can’t board a plane, even if he could afford a ticket.

All of the immigrants interviewed by NJ were aware that Obama is proposing legislation that would give legal status to them or their friends. They are happy that the president is turning his attention to the matter, but they are dubious about his chances of success. “That’s a hope for us, but the problem is, they speak about this problem for years and nothing changes,” Jose says. “We try to live a normal life, but the problem is, I’m not sure if I come back home tonight.”

In Washington, how and when illegal immigrants can become U.S. citizens are among the most difficult questions the administration and Congress are tackling. Obama has a plan, and a bipartisan Senate “Gang of Eight” has also proposed a path to citizenship that is contingent on the borders being secured.

Both the Senate framework and Obama’s proposal would give illegal immigrants probationary legal status; they would have to “get in the back of the line” for citizenship. (Democrats won’t support any immigration plan that doesn’t immediately stop the deportations of noncriminal illegal immigrants.) In analyzing the proposals, civil-rights advocates worry that the citizenship wait times are so long already that the “immigrants on probation” would die before they get a chance to be citizens. Voicing similar concerns, Obama wants to ensure that any border-security contingency proposed by the Gang of Eight isn’t impossible to meet.

Democrats are pushing for citizenship, in part, because they want more voters. They also rightly point out that the bottom-feeder class that now makes up the illegal population would continue as a codified lower class if citizenship isn’t part of the plan.

The immigrants themselves aren’t worrying about that. The very idea of citizenship is so far from their daily concerns that it might as well be in Shangri-la. When asked how he would vote if he had the chance, Roy pauses and furrows his brow. “That’s a good question. I really don’t know.”


Bailey, of Sudie’s, and Shallal, of Busboys and Poets, are irritated that current law forces them to act as de facto immigration enforcers with no real tools. It is illegal for employers to hire undocumented workers, but they have few ways to detect them. They aren’t allowed to ask for different IDs from job applicants or to unreasonably scrutinize the cards the applicants give them. If the ID looks like a driver’s license, it passes.

Shallal has had to fire some kitchen workers when job applicants provided Social Security numbers already in use by other employees. That’s a sure tip-off that the numbers are up for sale by an identity thief.

Restaurant owners will say, when asked, that they don’t hire illegal immigrants. They also say they don’t know of anyone on their staff who is illegal. They are very likely telling the truth. Employers aren’t allowed to ask about a prospective employee’s country of origin—that would be discriminatory. They are simply required to keep copies of a new hire’s identification on file with an I-9 form, a dizzyingly bureaucratic document that generally does nothing but collect dust. A new employee can offer up many types of documents for the I-9, some of them archaic. Simple mistakes are made. The lunch rush may be starting. And document forgery is big business.

“When did business owners,” Bailey wonders, “become the bad guys of the Republican Party?”

Many restaurants, particularly large chains, use E-Verify, the government’s electronic verification system that checks a new hire’s name, Social Security number, and birth date against federal databases. The system can also check against Homeland Security Department databases for work-visa numbers. But E-Verify isn’t foolproof. A simple identity theft—data from a lost or stolen driver’s license, plus a savvy Web search—can give document forgers all the information they need to create fakes that will pass through the system.

E-Verify is popular among Republican lawmakers. They often say that making the now-voluntary system mandatory for all employers is essential to stopping unauthorized border crossings. Without it, job prospects will always be a draw for those on the other side of the border, they say. The business community, by contrast, is dubious about E-Verify. Business leaders say they don’t want employers to take on the role of immigration enforcers, and they worry about technical hiccups in the system.

Shallal doesn’t use E-Verify on principle. “I’m totally against that. It puts me in the position of being a policeman,” he says. “If anybody comes and has a really good fake ID, that’s not my problem. I’m not in the business to cut off somebody’s lifeline.”

But business groups are slowly realizing that E-Verify is here to stay. The program has been in existence for more than 10 years, which has given the government the opportunity to work out many of its bugs. A few years ago, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reluctantly signed off on a mandatory E-Verify bill because it included a relaxation of some other state immigration laws that were troublesome to business. The bill didn’t pass.

Jacob Monty, managing partner of the Houston-based law firm Monty & Ramirez, advises restaurant owners (Bailey among them) to use E-Verify. It gives them legal protections if immigration authorities find they have unwittingly hired an unauthorized worker. Employers enrolled in E-Verify cannot be held liable for any legal violations that are based on erroneous information from the system. That doesn’t necessarily help the restaurant manager who may have to fire his best line cook, but it can keep the restaurant from going out of business as a result of punitive fines.

The undocumented employee, meanwhile, can probably walk across the street to another restaurant and start right where he left off. The fakes aren’t hard to get. Jose said he easily bought bogus IDs for himself and his wife through referrals from friends. Roy said the coyotes gave him his fake ID. He invented his Social Security number when filling out his first job application. “I didn’t know any better. I just filled out the numbers,” he says.

Monty saw first-hand the sophistication of the document-forgery business. He and a colleague went undercover in 2007 posing as undocumented immigrants seeking IDs. “I saw document vendors simply ask immigrants where they wanted to work, and then issue, on-the-spot, authentic looking identification and Social Security numbers (SSN) for use on an I-9 form,” he wrote in his 2011 book, The Gringo’s Guide to Hispanics in the Workplace. He includes examples in the book of fake business cards from document vendors that purport to sell services such as “window painting.”

It also doesn’t hurt that many employers are willing to look the other way if job applicants can give them documents that seem authentic. Monty likes to show off his collection of fake Social Security cards and Texas driver’s licenses, some sporting his own photo, that are indistinguishable from the real thing. E-Verify has made the profitable document-forgery business explode. A set of ID cards that once cost $200 now goes for $2,000 if it must pass through the electronic verification system. “It buys you very little peace of mind,” he says.

Sometimes employers like their undocumented workers so much that they willingly flout the law on their behalf. Lizbeth Mateo, a California activist who is open about her immigration status and who has lived in the United States without papers since she was a teenager, helped run a small deli in California for eight years. She was up-front about her illegal status when she applied for the job. It didn’t matter. Her bosses knew they could get audited by immigration authorities, but they said they would worry about that when it happened. It never did.

In another restaurant job, Mateo’s manager went so far as to create a fake name and Social Security number for her after the Social Security Administration sent a “no-match letter” about the number they had on file for her. Six months later, another letter arrived. That’s when Mateo decided to leave her job on her own. “I didn’t want to lie,” she says. “How long was it going to keep going?”


While activists in Texas such as Monty engage in regular outreach to the Latino community to encourage it to become more politically active, Bailey has taken the opposite approach, what he calls “gringo inreach.” He coined the term in January while addressing the ultraconservative Texas Public Policy Foundation about the need for white people to get involved in immigration. He has had some success since he formed the Texas Immigration Solution, but it’s a steep climb.

He helped the state GOP adopt a policy statement last year that called for renewable work visas for undocumented immigrants. It was jaw-dropping to see hard-core Republican activists endorsing legalization for illegal immigrants. Bailey has to constantly defend the idea. “This is not amnesty. Amnesty is what we did in 1986,” he tells the Walker County Republicans in Huntsville. “This is if you want to be on a temporary-worker program, not a citizenship program. You gotta pay a fine and you gotta pay back taxes. No criminals, no felons, no bad guys.”

It’s a far cry from the friendly conversations that take place in Sudie’s kitchen. No amount of reassurance can ease the Walker County Republicans’ minds about legalizing the illegal population. They shift uncomfortably in their seats.

Bailey’s parting line is a warning. “If we don’t address this problem in five years, Texas will become a blue state. I guarantee you. We’re going to go the way of the Whigs.”

Few seem won over. A painful silence quits the question-and-answer session. The crowd breaks up quietly. As caterers start gathering plates, a few people approach Bailey. A woman confides, “I used to be one of ‘those.’ … A ‘no-way, kick ’em out’ person. But this makes sense. We have to do something.”

These are typical reactions, Bailey explains after the event. Those in his audience, even when they are willing to accept his premise, don’t want to make their views known publicly. He finds himself saying the same things over and over again to white audiences packed with folded arms and frowns. His frustration is palpable. “When did business owners,” he wonders, “become the bad guys of the Republican Party?”

Bailey’s kitchen manager, Hernandez, appreciates Bailey’s political efforts, but he is skeptical that Republicans can come around to another point of view. It was only recently that Hernandez started to believe that Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the GOP’s front man on immigration, was anything but another anti-immigrant politician. “They say really bad things. But right now, I see the news. He’s changing,” he says of Rubio.

Hernandez votes for Democrats, but he loves Bailey the Republican as much as Bailey loves him. Politics are far removed from the two men’s daily restaurant life of icing catfish and later deep-frying it. Trust is forged in the fire of the kitchen. Outside, however, it remains harder to come by. P

Andy Shallal (above) and Brad Bailey could very likely come to blows over almost any issue besides immigration. They believe in immigrants not for idealistic or political reasons but because they work hard.