Small-Business Owners Lend Support at Immigration Rallies
BY Ted O’Callahan
As hundreds of thousands of immigrants and supporters took to the streets, some of their employers also joined in.
While some of Monday's pro-immigration rallies in more than 100 cities nationwide were billed as walkouts from work, many of the demonstrators' employers chose to walk right out with them and march on the front lines.
As the immigration issue has boiled over in recent weeks, bringing hundreds of thousands of people to the streets, supporters of immigrants' rights have argued that pending legislation would deal a severe blow to the economy -- and to the small businesses that employ them.
"Our members are the owners, but the employees are more important than the owners because we can't operate without them," said Chuck Hunter, of the New York Restaurant Association, who attended a rally at City Hall in New York.
Hunter, whose group represents some 7,000 restaurants in the state, said the immigrants who do the backend work that keeps restaurants running deserve "legislation that lets undocumented workers continue to contribute to our economy as they do now."
"They are good people," he added. "They come to work every day. They are reliable. They are honest. They are not felons. Nor are we that employ them."
Peter Pyen, of the League of Korean Americans, USA, whose membership includes many small-business owners, said it is important to eliminate the provision that would make it a criminal act for businesses to hire illegal immigrants. "Our main concern is that small-business owners should not be penalized for employing people whom they don't know are illegal residents," he said.
"We are frustrated with the broken immigration system," said John Gay, a co-chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based Essential Worker Immigration Coalition. "It doesn't match the economic reality."
Although he did not attend a rally on Monday, Gay said his organization continues to be concerned over the nation's shortage of unskilled labor. "There are only 10,000 green cards available for lesser-skilled or unskilled workers from abroad each year," he said. "Is it any wonder that there are 11 million or maybe 12 million undocumented workers?"
The bill proposed by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) does nothing to fix the problem, according to Gay, but would make life miserable for undocumented workers and business owners. "It would impose fines of up to $25,000 for paperwork violations," Gay said. "How many businesses could withstand one or two or three $25,000 fines for checking the wrong box?"
Michael Choi, a general partner at the Bestway Supermarket in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, D.C., said that his business would be directly affected if the working-class immigrant community is restricted.
Choi said that there was such high interest in the local rally from employees that his store decided to swallow a loss of thousands of dollars in revenue to close for the day, so that workers could attend.
In an industry with significant employee turnover, Choi said it would be expensive and time-consuming to do what amounts to a background check on every employee.
Chung Pak, of the League of Korean Americans of Maryland, said that a number of dry cleaners owned by Korean Americans in Maryland's Montgomery County organized to let workers off, with pay, to attend the rally. Pak believes that there needs to be comprehensive reform, but doesn't want to see small-business owners unfairly targeted.
Manuel Hidalgo of the Latino Economic Development Corporation of Washington, D.C., said his group had 25 associated businesses -- including landscapers, retail stores, and restaurants -- close to allow workers to attend the march. Some even provided bus transportation to the event.
Hidalgo said that many area business owners are afraid that if H.R. 4437 were to become law, it would devastate the hospitality industry. "There is no doubt the economic impact 12 million people can make -- let alone those performing jobs so many others don't want to do."
But beyond economic motives, Hidalgo said the tone of the debate has angered many who otherwise might have stayed on the sidelines. He pointed to recent comments by Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), a vocal supporter of immigration reform. "It reeks of racism," Hidalgo said. "I think a lot of people who aren't Hispanics or immigrants are moved to action when they see such hateful language coming out of lawmakers."