Bailey is like small-business owners all over the country who are stymied by out-of-date immigration laws and who couldn’t care less if their workers are foreign.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.