Immigration's Bottom Line

Immigrant Walter Velasquez works at the Oval Room.
Immigrant Walter Velasquez works at the Oval Room. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Neil Irwin and Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 30, 2006

At table 10 of the Oval Room, a high-price lawyer slurped an $8 bowl of asparagus soup. Over at table 71, a crowd of Office and Management and Budget staffers toasted a retiring colleague, while at table 76, a White House correspondent leaned in to hear what her lunch partner was saying.

In the kitchen of the restaurant, there was a different kind of kaleidoscope. The sous-chef, a Panamanian immigrant, directed two cooks from El Salvador, one from Guatemala and one from Honduras. A Salvadoran immigrant ran the food to the tables. All the activity was monitored by the general manager, an Austrian by birth, who needs to satisfy the owner, originally from India.

Just as all of those workers depend on the swirl of official Washington business for their livelihood, official Washington depends on them. Tomorrow, immigrant groups plan to boycott workplaces and stores to prove just that point. But one day of activity at the Oval Room, a sleekly designed spot a block from the White House, shows how difficult it is to make any kind of simple calculation.

The tangled web of economic connections among immigrants and those born in the United States creates jobs at a Philadelphia seafood distributor and revenue for the local cable company, even as it causes a financial drain on local hospitals and schools. The impacts are so intertwined that significant changes to immigration laws could change the nation's commerce in unforeseen ways.

"We would not exist without immigrant labor," said Ashok Bajaj, owner of the restaurant. "If the laws change, the entire economics of the restaurant industry would change, too."

Bajaj, a New Delhi native who moved here from London in 1988, was willing to invest a million dollars here because of the availability of labor at attractive prices. His dishwashers make about $10 an hour, line cooks about $14 an hour, and sous-chefs $20 or so. About 70 percent of the restaurant's employees were born outside the United States; overall in the Washington region, about 45 percent of food-service workers are immigrants, according to an analysis of federal data by the Pew Hispanic Center.

If those workers in the Washington area hadn't been available, Bajaj said, he probably would have opened the restaurant somewhere else, perhaps in London, Sydney or New York. About 85,000 immigrants work in the region's leisure and hospitality sector, according to Pew, out of 215,000 total workers in that sector. There are about 86,100 unemployed people in the region, many of whom are just between jobs; were it not for immigrant labor, there would not be enough workers to staff the city's hotels and restaurants at their current levels.

A wide range of other businesses profit from the restaurant industry's immigrant labor. Thursday morning, the bread guy dropped off $32.75 worth of ciabatta and other items. Restaurant supplier Adams-Burch pulled up with $79.20 worth of brandy snifters. Keany Produce pushed $97.10 worth of arugula and other produce down the long, dim corridor to the kitchen, and the delivery guy from Samuels & Son unloaded $305.26 worth of salmon, cod and other seafood.

The booming restaurant business in Washington has rippled through to Philadelphia-based Samuels, which has been around since the 1920s. It has expanded from about 25 employees a decade ago to 150 today on the strength of the increasing numbers of high-end restaurants. Those are union jobs paying $12 to $19 an hour, and Samuel D'Angelo, the company president, figures that about 75 percent of his workforce was born in the United States.

"If there weren't all these immigrants out there to staff these white-tablecloth restaurants, things wouldn't have progressed the way they have in the last five or 10 years," D'Angelo said. "If we had to go backward, there would be a downturn in our business."

D'Angelo employs cutters who fillet fish. Machines can do the same work more cheaply, but they often tear up the meat. If there were fewer immigrants, forcing D'Angelo to pay more to attract workers, he would probably pass those costs on to customers. If restaurants were to balk at higher prices and settle for machine-filleted fish, they might find seafood suppliers who employ fewer people for each serving of fish.

Back at the kitchen in the Oval Room, René Hernandez stood at a station, preparing food for the looming lunch rush. The 22-year-old Salvadoran immigrant, who arrived in the United States four years ago, picked one long, fat, cluster of fava beans after another out of a huge bowl and began the laborious task of removing a handful of beans from each cluster, then peeling each individual bean from its hard shell, a task that can take an hour to yield a small bowlful of shelled beans.

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