My name is Billy Lawless and I am an Executive Board Member of the Illinois Restaurant Association. I am here this morning on behalf of our Association and on behalf of every restaurateur in the state of Illinois.
The restaurant industry is invariably linked with immigration and always has been. A century ago Eastern and Southern European immigrants began a thriving restaurant industry in the City of Chicago. In the later part of the century they were joined by immigrants from Asia, Africa, and Latin America and around the world. These communities have all left their mark on our culinary scene. The industry could not operate without them.
Look in the kitchen of your favorite Chicago restaurant and you will find Spanish is spoken as much as English. The same could be said of restaurants all over the State of Illinois and the country as a whole. The hospitality industry has always depended upon immigrants. We are one of the few industries that promotes from within and where an immigrant can work his or her way up to the top by managing or owning a restaurant.
Recently the Bureau of Labor statistics reported that out of a total of about 12.7 million workers in the American restaurant industry, an estimated 1.4 million are foreign born. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, about 20 percent of the nearly 2.6 million chefs, head cooks and cooks are undocumented immigrants. Among the 360,000 dishwashers, 28 percent are undocumented.
As the representatives of the restaurant industry in Illinois, we work to train our workforce. The IRA currently has a partnership with the consulate of Mexico to offer Sanitation classes in Spanish. These classes allow many restaurants to be compliant with Illinois state law. They also ensure that no employee or community is at greater risk of food Bourne illness simply because of a language barrier.
We are alsoworking on partnerships with the City Colleges of Chicago to strengthen career training and ESL classes for our workforce. We also promote the learning of Spanish by supervisors and managers as a way to better communicate with their work force. As I said, the restaurant industry is one of few industries with true upward mobility. Many people make good careers in our industry despite being foreign born or lacking a high school diploma.
In the political arena, we are working with a strong coalition to promote sensible pro-immigration policies that are good for people and good for business. We are fighting against deportation practices that tear families apart. We are working to educate our members about the new deferred action policies and to push for an even broader program. In Illinois we are working to make sure licenses can be obtained by immigrants. We see many employees who miss work or cannot accept promotions to other locations because they are scared to drive, and with good reason. We must work with our legislators to grant these licenses.
On election day, 66% polled in favor of Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Today in Illinois let us start the process with drivers licenses legislation and keep our streets and motorways safe.
Billy Lawless is a restaurant owner of Chicago’s the Gage and Henri and Executive Board Member of the Illinois Restaurant Association.