Restaurants Without Immigrants?

Northern Virginia's dining scene already has a labor shortage. What would it look like without immigrants?

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Sebastian Oveysi, executive chef of Amoo’s Restaurant in McLean, has big dreams for the next decade. A second dining spot offering live music and innovative cuisine. A James Beard Award. A Michelin rating.

As he talks at a quiet table near the front entrance of his family’s Persian restaurant, a glass of hot tea at his elbow, his enthusiasm is infectious. Amoo’s, which his parents bought 11 years ago, has launched a catering business and a food truck. His sister, Maria, who holds an MBA, does the books. His 75-year-old father chats up customers in the dining room and occasionally helps out in the kitchen.

The success of their family business is all the more astonishing when you consider the events that led to this point. Seb, 36, was born in Iran, where his Iranian-Kurdish father, Masoud, was an officer in the air force and one of the shah’s pilots. When the Iranian revolution erupted in 1979, Masoud was arrested, tortured and scheduled for execution. He escaped from prison and the whole family fled to Turkey.

After waiting more than a year for asylum visas to the U.S., they landed in a low-income apartment in Annandale with the help of church sponsorship in 1994. Masoud took a job as a busboy during the day and delivered doughnuts to 7-Eleven stores at night. Seb’s mother, Soghra, cleaned houses.

When Seb was 12, his parents bought a restaurant inside a motor lodge in Vienna. Every day after school he washed dishes, bused tables and helped with takeout orders. In 2007, his parents bought Amoo’s and brought him on as a partner.

By 2009, every member of their family, save one brother who lives abroad, had gained U.S. citizenship.
“A lot of people living here don’t understand what it’s like to be a refugee,” Seb says. “That’s why immigrants have a harder work ethic than most Americans. I hate to say it, but it’s true. Because they’ve gone through poverty, they’ve gone through annihilation, been thrown out of their homes. That’s why they’re here.”


Sebastian and Masoud Oveysi, owners of Amoo’s in McLean. Photo by Liz Lynch

Immigrants—including both legal and undocumented workers—have long been the backbone of Northern Virginia’s dining landscape. They wash dishes and chop vegetables, work as line cooks and sous chefs, bus tables, mix drinks, clean bathrooms and mop floors. Some open their own restaurants, bringing with them the cuisine of their homelands.

After the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which repealed national-origins quotas and replaced them with a system based on reuniting immigrant families, Vietnamese refugees opened a string of restaurants that kick-started a renaissance in once-shabby Clarendon. Later, they helped turn a failing supermarket and strip mall in Seven Corners into Eden Center, dubbing it the new “Little Saigon.”

More recently, cafés and bakeries owned by natives of El Salvador, Ethiopia and Bolivia have sprouted along Columbia Pike.

Today, “Dreamers”—those still under temporary protection from deportation because they were brought to the United States as children—juggle waitressing and college. Green-card holders work double shifts and send money home to their families in places like India, Guatemala and Mexico. Ambitious chefs and restaurateurs are introducing Arlington’s food-curious public to Filipino street food, Uyghur noodles and Balkan small plates.

But within this tapestry of cultures, threads of worry are emerging in response to the federal crackdown on undocumented workers, a possible end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that protects Dreamers, and proposals that would tighten restrictions on green-card holders and impose stricter limits on legal immigration. Some workers fear not only for their own security, but about what would happen to their families if their spouses or parents were deported.

According to U.S. Census data, 51,400 of Arlington’s 230,000 residents were born outside of the United States, and 29,400 of those foreign-born residents (about 13 percent) are non-U.S. citizens. (By comparison, about 7 percent of the American population nationwide is made up of non-U.S. citizens.)

The county has largely embraced these newcomers. In 2007, the Arlington County Board issued a resolution that read, in part: “We believe in a community…that welcomes and values all of its residents, treating them with human dignity and respect, regardless of immigration status.” Last spring, county officials publicly—and pointedly—reaffirmed that position, stating that local police have a policy of not monitoring, detaining, interviewing or investigating people solely to determine their immigration status.

A retired federal worker in Arlington recently donated $7,000 to create a scholarship fund to help would-be citizens pay the $725 application fee for U.S. citizenship. Since then, additional donors have more than doubled the fund, which is being managed by Arlington’s Department of Human Services.

But there’s still an ever-present fear in local kitchens, and the county board has stopped short of declaring Arlington a “sanctuary” jurisdiction. The executive chef of one upscale Arlington restaurant says he has had to reassure his mostly Guatemalan and Salvadoran employees that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents can’t just barge into the restaurant and scoop them up for deportation; they need a warrant.

Even undocumented workers have rights, he reminds them. “Some joke about jumping in the dishwasher or hiding in the ceiling to get away,” he says. “I say, ‘You don’t need to do that.’ We’ll get someone to represent each and every one of them if needed.”

Sometimes the mere sight of uniformed officers causes panic. In March 2017, when government officials raided a pharmacy near Bailey’s Crossroads for alleged Food and Drug Administration violations, rumors quickly spread to the Salvadoran restaurant next door that ICE had arrived. The kitchen staff slipped out the back door and customers stayed away for weeks, says Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, legal director for the Immigrant Advocacy Program at Virginia’s nonprofit Legal Aid Justice Center, which has offices in Falls Church near the site of the incident.

Ever since President Donald Trump’s January 2017 inauguration, Sandoval-Moshenberg says his organization has seen a drop in the number of complaints from immigrant restaurant workers who say their employers are cheating them out of wages. “They’re terrified that getting involved in the court system will somehow lead to them being put on ICE’s radar screen,” he says.

As in most major metropolitan areas, restaurants are big business here. In Arlington, 7.7 percent of all county jobs in 2016 (about 17,000) were in the hospitality and food service sector. When the the current fiscal year ends on June 30, Arlington will have received about $40 million in revenue from meal taxes—money which, in turn, funds infrastructure projects and critical county services such as schools and emergency responders.

“If the feds crack down on immigrants, via deportation and limits on new arrivals to the U.S., the impact on the restaurant industry will be devastating, both locally and nationwide,” observes one restaurant owner. “Some places would survive, but many would not.”

Restaurant work has long appealed to newcomers with limited to no English and whose skills may not match what the local economy needs. Washing dishes and prepping food can be a foot in the door; then, as those workers gain fluency and pay their dues, they can move into public-facing jobs, such as bartending or waiting tables, and eventually to management positions with benefits. Some ethnic restaurants also enjoy a built-in customer base of fellow immigrants: Think Jewish delis in New York and Chinatowns across the country.

Café Sazón, which sisters Adriana Torres and Claudia Camacho opened on Columbia Pike in 2011, has become one such gathering place, although the sisters still wince in recalling how difficult the early days were.

“Lots of people told us not to open a business. We didn’t think we’d make it past the first few years,” says Torres, who came to the U.S. as a child, from Bolivia, and holds a degree in architecture from Catholic University. Today, the café enjoys a steady stream of customers craving traditional fare such as flautas, pupusas and silpancho, a Bolivian-style steak dish. Torres and Camacho have hosted karaoke nights and Thanksgiving dinners for their employees.

And yet there have been times when they, like other area restaurant owners, have been blindsided by the latest crackdowns on undocumented workers. It hit Café Sazón indirectly last year when an employee didn’t show up for work one day. Her husband, in turns out, had been deported to El Salvador, and she and her 3-year-old daughter left for New York to stay with relatives, Torres says.

When workers quit, it’s difficult to replace them. “At one point, we advertised for waitresses and waiters on Craigslist,” Torres says. “Out of 40 people that responded, four showed up. It’s hard to find people who mesh well.” She says native-born Americans don’t apply.

A Pew Research Center analysis of Census data found that U.S. eating and drinking establishments in 2014 employed more undocumented workers than almost any other industry, second only to the construction sector. Of the restaurant industry’s roughly 2.3 million foreign-born workers, Pew estimates, about 1.26 million are documented and nearly 1.1 million are not.

Most employers don’t knowingly hire undocumented workers. Local restaurant owners and managers say they ask job applicants to provide at least two pieces of identification, although “it’s easier than ever [for applicants] to falsify paperwork,” says one industry veteran, “so it’s a cloudy issue.”

Many local restaurants use the federal government’s electronic E-Verify system that compares information from an employee’s I-9 form with data from the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration to confirm employment eligibility. Some even take it a step further. For the past year, Oveysi says he has paid a fee to the FBI to run background checks on individuals applying for jobs at Amoo’s.

Though restaurants in many states, including Virginia, are not required to use E-Verify, some trade groups are pushing to change that. The National Restaurant Association supports enhanced border security and making the E-Verify system mandatory for food and drink operators across the country. At the same time, the organization has lobbied to restructure the H-2B visa program, which allows employers to hire non-U.S. workers for temporary nonagricultural jobs. It advocates lifting the annual caps on such workers, describing the current program as “broken.”

“At the end of the day, these [restaurants] are small-business operators, so we try to protect them and keep them in compliance,” says Kathy Hollinger, president and CEO of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. “If immigrants disappeared, there would be a crisis in terms of staff shortages.”

Arlington’s restaurant operators already are feeling those shortages. The county’s unemployment rate of 2.2 percent—the lowest in the Commonwealth—and the District’s higher minimum wage ($12.50 an hour, compared with $7.25 in Virginia) mean that workers are likely to quit if they can find a better-paying job just a few Metro stops away in D.C.

“We’re always hiring, and the applicant pool is thin to nonexistent,” says Nick Freshman, co-owner of Spider Kelly’s in Clarendon, which employs about 40 full-time and part-time workers. “Even if you’re unsympathetic to the plight of the [immigrant], you can be sympathetic to the plight of the small-business man.”

Culinary students at La Cocina VA prepare a graduation banquet. Courtesy photo

Paty Funegra is sympathetic to both. A native of Peru, she first came to the U.S. 10 years ago to work on sustainability projects at the Inter-American Development Bank. She was volunteering at D.C. Central Kitchen when she noticed that many Latinos weren’t receiving culinary training because they lacked English proficiency.

At the same time, she saw restaurants struggling to attract and retain good employees. She realized there might be a solution.

In 2014, she founded La Cocina VA, an Arlington-based nonprofit that is addressing restaurants’ high workforce turnover by training immigrants—mostly women, many of them survivors of domestic abuse or human trafficking—for professional culinary careers. La Cocina offers English classes concurrently with culinary training, food-handling certifications, job placement assistance and paid internships at local restaurants, hotels and catering companies, plus two years of career development support and an alumni network for graduates. More than 90 students have graduated from the program so far, Funegra says, landing jobs that pay an average of $13.50 per hour.

Maria P. (not her real name) is one of those success stories. It has been nearly two decades since she fled an abusive marriage in her native Bolivia, arriving in Northern Virginia in 2001 with her then-5-year-old son. Early on, Maria cleaned stores and ran a day care center. Then she got sick and had to close her child care business. She has battled cancer and depression.

“When I came to this country, it’s because I wanted something different for my son. I was safe,” Maria says, blotting away tears. She still fears that her ex-husband, who remains in Bolivia, will one day track her down.

Now a graduate of La Cocina VA, Maria works during the week at an Arlington bakery. She bakes in her off-hours, too, creating ethereal, pastel-colored confections that grace many a quinceanera table. Someday, she wants to open her own shop. She is remarried, and her son is majoring in microbiology at Virginia Commonwealth University.

La Cocina VA, meanwhile, has also gained more secure footing. Next year, a planned expansion will move it out of the basement of Arlington’s Mount Olivet United Methodist Church, where it has been operating for the past four years, and into a 5,000-square-foot space on Columbia Pike. The new facility will have the capacity to train triple the number of culinary students, Funegra says, plus an events area, technology resources, a “kitchen incubator” for budding entrepreneurs and a café.

“The café will bring the community in to see what we do and help move La Cocina VA toward financial self-sufficiency and away from being primarily grant-based,” says Freshman of Spider Kelly’s, who in April became board chair of the nonprofit. (He’s also founder of Mothersauce Partners, an incubator and consultancy that brings new restaurant concepts to market.) “We intend to make the café a significant revenue generator.”

La Cocina gives back to the community in other ways, too. Many of the meals students prepare daily as part of their training are donated to affordable housing residents and shelters serving the local homeless population. Over three years, the nonprofit has donated 22,600 meals and recovered 18,500 pounds of food from area farms and food banks, Funegra says.

Ironically, Arlington’s explosive growth in recent years has pushed some immigrants away, in spite of the county’s inclusive stance. The culture is welcoming, but the real estate prices and cost of living aren’t. Although children in Arlington Public Schools represent some 96 countries, the percentage of county residents born outside the U.S. has actually declined over the past decade and a half—from 27.8 percent in 2000 to 22.7 percent in 2016, according to an analysis of Census data by George Mason University’s Institute for Immigration Research.

A federal crackdown on undocumented workers and new restrictions on green-card issuance could cause more to flee. Funegra says the economic impact of their absence would be palpable: “Even undocumented immigrants pay taxes, and removing them will leave a huge hole in our tax system.”

But there are those who leave with hopes of coming back.

Another board member of La Cocina VA tells the story of an assistant general manager at a local restaurant who confessed to his boss that his employment documents were fake. The Salvadoran man had spent 17 years working his way up, from dishwasher to management. He told his boss he was working with a lawyer to try to gain legal status but needed to go back to El Salvador to get his paperwork in order. He left Arlington in December, scared and unsure about his future.

He and his boss kept in touch, and March brought news that the man had been cleared to return to the United States—another immigrant pursuing his own version of the American Dream.


Lisa Lednicer is a first-generation American. Her parents are World War II refugees from Belgium.

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