Washington is the kind of city where you can learn a lot by listening to the conversations over dinner. At my restaurants, I have been lucky to join the conversation with presidents and first ladies, senators and ambassadors.
But right now, you can hear the most important conversations if you walk past the tables out front and into my kitchens. There — amid the din of knives chopping, plates clattering and chefs calling out a staccato stream of food orders — you’ll hear from people who look and sound a lot like America. English predominates, but you’ll also catch Haitian Creole, French and Spanish. Natural-born citizens and naturalized citizens like me work alongside those on temporary visas. I believe that all these voices make us stronger, more creative and courageous, less complacent and fearful.
Manuel is one of those people in the kitchen who prepare food for the powerful. (I am using only his first name here, to protect him from the threats many immigrants are now facing.) He was born in El Salvador, in a small town called Santa Rosa de Lima. He came to the United States in 1997 and, after a massive earthquake in his native country, was granted temporary protected status (TPS) in 2001. When immigration officials asked how he came into the United States, he didn’t lie about his walk across the border. “Matamoros,” he said.
It was also in 2001 that Manuel started as a cook at my Spanish restaurant, Jaleo. I have come to know him as someone who works hard, pays his taxes and is raising his children — a son with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status and two American-born children — to respect the country that gave him so much. But now, his family’s future is in doubt. “I just want to work to be able to send my two American-born children to university; I want them to have a better life than mine,” he told me.
The Trump administration’s decision to revoke protective status for Salvadorans (affecting 200,000 immigrants living in the United States, including 32,000 in the Washington area), Haitians (59,000 immigrants) and possibly Hondurans (86,000 immigrants) has thrown families across the country into chaos. This policy shift also has the potential to devastate my industry and hurt the overall economy.
Congress created TPS in 1990 to provide legal status to foreigners who could not safely return home because of war, natural disasters or other extreme conditions. Republican and Democratic administrations alike have extended those protections, six to 18 months at a time, recognizing that conditions remain dangerous. El Salvador, for example, is in such a state of turmoil that the State Department advises U.S. citizens to reconsider traveling there. An influx of tens of thousands of returning citizens would only make things worse.
In the meantime, people like Manuel have built lives in the United States, buying homes (nearly a third have mortgages) and becoming active in their communities. Like Manuel, many TPS recipients are married and have children who are U.S. citizens — immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti and Honduras are raising about 273,200 U.S.-born children, according to the Center for American Progress.
Understandably, few parents would want to uproot their spouses and children to travel to a country with little opportunity and widespread violence. So, instead, these individuals face an agonizing choice: to leave without their families, or to remain in the United States without the legal means to work and in constant fear of deportation. No doubt, many will disappear from their jobs, obtain fake documents and become ghosts in a country where they used to belong.
As Americans, we also have much to lose if hundreds of thousands of industrious migrants are expelled. The Center for American Progress estimates that removing TPS workers from the economy would generate a $164 billion hole in gross domestic product over the next decade.
Because restaurants are among the main employers of these immigrants (along with construction companies, landscape businesses and child-care services), the restaurant industry stands to be particularly hard hit. Immigrants, including Salvadorans and other Central Americans, make up more than half of the staff at my restaurants, and we simply could not run our businesses without them. With national unemployment at 4 percent, there aren’t enough U.S.-born workers to take their places — or cover the employment needs of a growing economy.
Let me be frank: The administration is throwing families and communities into crisis for no good reason. This is not what people of faith do. It’s not what pragmatic people do. It’s not what America was built on.
I came to the United States from Spain in 1991 with an E-2 visa and big ambitions. I wanted to introduce America to the food of my heritage while at the same time reimagining it. I wanted to become a chef and start my own restaurant.
Despite the many hardships of being a new immigrant, life was relatively easy for me — in no small part because of my fair skin and blue eyes. America isn’t the only place where this happens; it is a human sickness. We have a hard time welcoming those who are different from us.
With the help of many friends and mentors, I worked hard to realize my ambitions. And I made sure to bring as many people as I could along with me. That is the American Dream: to live your own dream while helping others achieve theirs.
As an employer and friend of Salvadorans, Haitians and incredible people of many other nationalities, I hope Congress can work with the administration to change course on immigration policy.
TPS recipients, who have contributed for so long to the U.S. economy and our communities, should be able to apply for green cards and start on the path to citizenship. And DACA recipients, like Manuel’s son, should be able to apply for permanent status so they can truly belong to the country they have long thought of as their own.
Let’s also create a revolving-door visa, allowing people from Mexico, El Salvador and other countries to work for a few months and then return home, bringing their earnings back with them. Revolving-door visas would help the U.S. economy continue to grow and help grow the economies of our allies, too.
President Trump knows full well the value of temporary visas. From his family’s winery in Virginia to his construction projects in New York, he has hired many foreign workers to build his businesses.
President Trump, if you are reading this: Back in 2016 you told me in a phone conversation that you wanted to hear more about my views on immigration. We haven’t spoken in a while. So let me say this here: Walls will not make America safer or greater. But the money our immigrants send back home most certainly does, because economic stability contributes to political stability and international security. Allowing immigrants to work without fear of deportation or exploitation would help, too, because it would sustain American businesses and support American families. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the American way to transform what might seem a problem into an opportunity.