The history of U.S. immigration goes back almost as far as the country itself, beginning with the very first legislation, the Naturalization Act of 1790, and extending to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (daca) in 2012. But through it all—the surges in immigration and the declines, the welcoming of immigrants with open arms and the attempts to keep them at bay—one thing has remained the same: Immigrants have made their mark on the restaurant industry, be it as chefs, dishwashers, waiters, managers, franchisees, concept creators, or anything in between.
Although immigrants make up just 13.5 percent of the U.S. population, a 2017 report from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs estimates that 37 percent of small restaurant owners are immigrants, while 22 percent of foodservice workers are foreign-born.
“You can talk to any big-time chef and they’ll tell you that if it weren’t for immigrants, the food business would not be where it is right now,” says Giuseppe Lanzone, who along with his brother Mario created the first Peruvian Brothers food truck in 2013 after emigrating from Peru in 1987. The brand now lays claim to three food trucks, a catering kitchen, its own line of hot sauces, and a soon-to-open brick and mortar in Washington, D.C.’s La Cosecha food hall.
“Immigrants have always played a very important role in the U.S. industry,” says Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research and knowledge at the National Restaurant Association (nra). “According to the latest Census Bureau information, restaurants employ nearly 2.3 million foreign-born workers.”
But with tensions over immigration at what feels like an all-time high, many within the restaurant industry worry new immigration policies could hurt their establishments, their employees, and, ultimately, their guests.
In 2017, newly elected President Donald Trump endorsed legislation that would reduce legal immigration by nearly half, primarily by giving priority to skilled, educated, English-speaking immigrants. On top of that, his national emergency declaration in February could open up $8 billion in funding for a border wall meant to curtail illegal immigration along the southern border.
But with the national unemployment rate hovering around just 3.8 percent—one of the lowest levels in more than a decade—these policies could pose a real threat for brands that rely on immigrants to fill the many basic roles that are vital to any restaurant’s success.