Chefs with Issues is a platform for chefs and farmers we love, fired up for causes about which they're passionate. John Currence is the chef and owner of City Grocery Restaurant Group in Oxford, Mississippi. In 2006, he received the Southern Foodways Alliance "Guardian of Tradition" award, and in 2009, he was recognized by the James Beard Foundation as "Best Chef South."
I am an odd animal. I am a chef and restaurateur with conservative fiscal views and liberal social ones. I consider myself reasonable.
While one part of me is extremely happy with the executive order President Obama issued last week which will allow certain younger, "qualifying" immigrants to apply for work permits, without fear of reprisal, another part of me is entirely disappointed that this homogenized edict is as far as he was willing to go in, what amounts to, an attempt to grab a fistful of votes in the coming election.
The paradox here is that small business is put in the position of outspending the government to coerce unwilling laborers to work. We can't battle a business model willing to spend itself into an $18 trillion deficit with no fear of reprisal.
Enter immigrant workers.
Restaurants, construction sites, housekeeping services and landscaping firms are kept afloat by these immigrant workers today. In restaurants alone, a vast majority of dishwashing, custodial, prep and line cook positions are populated by Latin American workers.
Look behind the doors at one of my favorite and insanely bustling French bistros in New York and you are hard-pressed to find someone not speaking Spanish. Along the Gulf of Mexico, Vietnamese people have swooped in to bolster a sagging native workforce in the fishing and oystering industries. Thousands upon thousands are in oil and gas production, shipyards and fabrication operations. Without their willing hands, our workforce is crippled and business shutter.
I remember very clearly watching CNN on August 29, 2005, as it became clear to us exactly what was happening to my home city of New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina passed just to its east. I turned to my dad and said, "Well, we'll be adding Latin food to the bevy of opportunities to eat in NOLA once this is all over."
It was clear to me immediately that if the mess that Katrina had left behind would ever be cleaned up, the houses rebuilt and the infrastructure repaired, it would mean the wholesale movement of a huge number of Latin Americans to the New Orleans area. That is exactly what happened. New Orleans was rebuilt quickly and the city is richer for their being there.
I can not survive without the Latino segment of the workforce in Oxford, Mississippi. I employ a tremendous number of people who do extremely unglamorous work. We pay them well and take care of them as well as we can. I have trouble getting American-born workers to even apply for those positions when we advertise, much less show up.
The issue here is not whether or not the President issued a "feel good" order to address this subject. The question is: How do we keep this segment of the population engaged in the process of pursuing the dream they came here with their sights set upon? How can we begin to dismantle entitlement programs which 80 years of data suggest have done nothing but remove ambition from the vocabulary of the American worker and keep these people from falling prey to the same folly?
There are millions who have moved to our wonderful country, have participated in the system, have succeeded and have prospered and there are certainly those who haven't. The issue is how we can provide those people, interested in participating, who are already here, with a clear path to citizenship and freedom.