Over the last decade, I've owned as many as five restaurants in the Portland area. As such, I've employed many immigrants, most from Mexico.
I've always tried to follow the law when hiring. Every hire is required to fill out their employment eligibility verification forms and give a copy of their ID and social security card. When employees have come to me and asked to be paid under the table, I've refused. When they've brought friends or family looking for a job who can't provide the proper paperwork, I've refused to hire them.
But a few years ago, one of the Mexican women who worked for me at Mi Mero Mole asked for a $5,000 advance. That was a lot of money to her, and me, too. I've never even paid myself that much in a month. She needed to have a damn good reason to borrow that much. And she did. She needed the money to bring her daughter from Mexico.
I know I haven't been alone the last several weeks in my frustration seeing migrant and refugee families detained and separated from their children under the current administration's "zero-tolerance" policy. But the images strike me especially close to the heart—because I've seen the pain of that separation up close.
My employee had not seen her daughter in eight years. She had come to the United States thinking it would be temporary, but her family depended on the money she was sending back to Mexico. Then she met a man and started a new family. Her daughter was 2 years old when she left. She was now 10, and had been living with her family in Puebla since she left.
Because the restaurant's bank account was low from working to open a new location, I had to personally borrow the money to lend to my employee. But it didn't matter. I was going to help her get her daughter.
For obvious reasons, I didn't want to know too much about how her daughter would get here. I learned second-hand, after the fact, where the money went. The daughter was with a "coyote" who would smuggle her into the country. The coyote would receive part of the money to get her across the border and more money to release her in the United States.
It was a tense couple of days. When word came that the daughter was in the country, the entire staff was relieved. My employee found out the news at work and cried. Most of us did with her. She then left in a hurry to drive to meet her daughter in some southern border state and bring her to Oregon.
As a business owner, I often think in economic terms. When an entrepreneur decides where to spend their money, one of the factors in that decision is what kind of return on investment they will see. Immigration offers a great return on investment for our country.
An early partner of mine hated hiring Mexicans. He would only hire them as dishwashers, the lowest rung on the restaurant ladder. Never for the kitchen.
"They're here one day and then gone the next. They're not reliable," he'd say.
My experience has been the opposite. Most of my Mexican employees have been with me at least a couple years in an industry where six months at the same place can make you seem like a veteran. I'm rarely able to keep white employees more than a year despite them mostly working easier front-of-the-house jobs.
One of my best employees was a Yucatecan who started out as a dishwasher for us. I found out he had worked at Macaroni Grill as a prep cook, so I talked my partner into trying him out at the salad station when one of our white, hipster cooks didn't show. He was so fast that I didn't even replace him as dishwasher. I gave him a sizeable raise, earning nearly as much as our head cook, and he did both jobs with ease. He worked with me several more years as my head cook at Mi Mero Mole before leaving and opening his own taqueria.
It doesn't take much effort searching the internet to learn that, contrary to nativist political rhetoric, immigrants are less likely to commit serious crimes than those born in the United States. Immigrants also give more in taxes than they use in services, including welfare and food stamps.
One of my favorite food trucks is run by a Mexican man who works 12 hour days, sometimes earning as little as $50 per day. And then he has to pay $30 for his propane. But as long as he can pay his rent, he explains, and his kids can continue to get an American education, it's worth it to him. It should be no surprise with people like him as their role models, children of immigrants are better educated and more successful than other Americans, according to census data. And it should be no surprise that in surveys, children of immigrants show a greater regard for hard work and faith in the American Dream.
Their ambition is our country's good fortune. We get smart, driven employees, who are willing to risk everything for a better life for themselves and their families. I'm not sure I'd want to run a restaurant without them.