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Tina Casey headshot

A Second Chance for the Restaurant Industry to Speak Out on Immigration Reform

By Tina Casey
Immigration Reform

The CEO of TGI Fridays, Ray Blanchette, went on record last week calling for immigration reform. Around the same time, news surfaced that the Donald Trump administration has begun to focus on deporting immigrants from Southeast Asia. The question is: Will business leaders step up and advocate for immigration reform in time to make a difference, or will they let another lost opportunity slip through their fingers?

Behind the curve on immigration reform

The Trump administration took office in January 2017, with one of its goals to crack down on what the president and his supporters view as unchecked immigration.

Tech companies responded forcefully from the start, and that sector continues to lead the push for reform. In contrast, the restaurant industry has taken a more low-key approach.

Since last summer, though, the industry has been “on edge” as the Trump administration reportedly gears up to arrest immigrants at their places of work, which are often in restaurants.

In a conversation with Business Insider last week, Blanchette explained why the restaurant industry needs to stay ahead of the labor reform curve in general and immigration reform in particular.

He remarked that the industry lost an opportunity to support a $10-per-hour minimum wage during the Barack Obama administration. Now, with momentum building for a $15-per-hour rate for American workers, the industry has to find ways to cope with an even more onerous wage scenario.

In a similar vein, Blanchette argued that the industry’s failure to make the case for sensible immigration reform over the years has come back to haunt it. The U.S. labor market is already tight. With immigrants no longer in sufficient numbers to take low-paying jobs, restaurants are scrambling to staff up, and there is a clear bottom-line motivation to advocate for change.

Now is the time for immigration reform

Blanchette’s remarks coincided with an NBC News report on a new shift in focus for the Trump administration’s immigration policy.

The administration has “quietly” deported about 25 Cambodian immigrants, mainly consisting of persons who have lived in the U.S. since arriving as refugees in the 1970s, after the Vietnam War, NBC reported.

Though the outlet was informed that the deportees had been convicted of crimes, in most cases it appears that the convictions were decades old, and the deportees had firmly established productive lives in their communities. Many are leaving family members and other dependents behind while facing an uncertain future in a country that does not want them back.

Cambodia has a strict policy on repatriating former refugees, and according to the organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice, many of the deportees were not born in Cambodia. For the most part, they were born in refugee camps and have never been to Cambodia.

A way forward on immigration reform?

All of these factors are consistent with the characteristics of previous mass deportations during the Trump administration. Rather than focusing on current criminal behavior, the administration has prioritized specific groups for enforcement regardless of their status in their communities.

In this context, Blanchette’s call for sensible immigration is a timely one — and a readymade platform for action is already available.

The Trump administration often leverages strict immigration laws passed during the Bill Clinton administration to enforce its policies, but the U.S. House of Representatives is working on a bill called the New Way Forward Act, which would loosen those restrictions.

The New Way Forward Act would provide immigrants facing deportation with more opportunities to remain in their communities until their case is settled. It would also give judges much more leeway to provide relief from deportation in cases of special need.

In a direct challenge to the decision behind deporting that group of Cambodian refugees, the bill also holds that a criminal conviction or charge “may not be the sole factor” to justify detention.

Immigration reform that everyone supports

The legislation also contains provisions that would end federal contracts with private companies for immigrant detention facilities and other detention programs.

When linked to the notorious family separation policy, the private prison issue has swayed public opinion. In effect, it has created a safe space in which business leaders can advocate for immigration reform.

For business leaders, the situation is similar to the gun safety movement. For many years, business leaders concerned about gun reform advocated in isolation. Now there is a strong grassroots gun reform movement backed by public opinion, and more businesses are beginning to advocate in public.

As a similar wave of advocacy builds for immigrant rights, now is the time for the restaurant industry to lead, not follow.

Image credit: Mike Mozart/Flickr

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey