Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Immigrants: The People Who Do Our Work - Part 1 of 6

Ever eat at the Iron Horse Grill, the consummately polished restaurant just around the corner from the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, NY? Phil McGrath, owner and chef, has been dishing out Timbale of Peaky Toe crab and seared diver scallops with creamed leeks and oyster mushrooms for the past eight years to an appreciative audience and great acclaim. But of course he can’t—and doesn’t—do it alone. Even in this intimate sixty-seat establishment, he has help, lots of it. Four servers, a bartender, a bus person, two food runners, plus four people in the kitchen. Many of these men and women hail from Ecuador and Guatemala and Mexico, and some, perhaps, came to this country illegally.

McGrath requires documentation from everyone he hires, but some of his employees may be among the 60,000 illegal immigrants in our county who serve your dinner at restaurants, cut your grass and plant your shrubs, scrub your floors and polish your silverware, wash your cars and starch your shirts, watch your kids and empty your great aunt’s bedpan in the hospital.

They are the men and women who make America work. And now they and the people who employ them are nervous. Really nervous. They’re nervous because they’re caught in the floodlights of the national furor over illegal immigration. A landscaper who refuses to be named for this story says, “They are terrified.” She quotes rumors that police rounded up 150 men for deportation in Mount Kisco and were setting up roadblocks on Central Avenue in White Plains in May. “They are going after employers also and fining them $10,000,” she adds. None of these tales are true, but they reflect the current state of mind. Congressmen and radio talk-show hosts and letters-to-the-editor writers are ranting about shipping eleven million of them back home and building the Great Wall of Mexico to keep them there.

As unrealistic as some of the proposals may be, our borders are going to be tighter and everyone’s way of life will be affected. Because when it comes right down to it, our local economy, if not our entire way of living, would grind to a halt without illegal immigration.

Take Phil McGrath’s restaurant, for example. “You’ve got to find that help somewhere just to make sure your business survives,” he says. “In Westchester, you’re not going to get many Americans who want to wash dishes and sweep floors.” Once upon a time, teenagers might have filled those jobs, but no longer. “Because of the wealth in this county, it’s hard to get a teenager to work,” McGrath says. “Their parents pay somebody to mow the lawn; the kids don’t want to work for a landscaper. The kids belong to the golf club; they don’t want to work on the golf course.”

“On a broader scale, who’s going to pick the apples and the asparagus and the tomatoes and the cotton?” McGrath adds. “Americans tend to not want to do that labor. Our fruits and vegetables would cost three times as much as they do now if it weren’t for the immigrant labor.”

Part 1 of 6 (originally published in a slightly different version inWestchester Magazine)

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

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