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New Jersey Union Boss: America Doesn’t Function Without Immigrants

Walk through any Atlantic City casino and you’ll see immigrant dealers, bartenders, waiters, and more, says Bob McDevitt, president of UNITE HERE Local 54. The city’s largest union for casino workers. Local 54 has 10,000 members, two-thirds of whom are either Hispanic or Asian Americans. “If you take away immigrant workers, you take away the fuel that drives this economy,” McDevitt says.

When McDevitt, an Atlantic City native, got his first job as a bar porter at the old Playboy casino in the 1980s, virtually every casino worker had been born and raised in America. As the industry expanded, however, immigrants from Latin America and South Asia flocked to Atlantic City in search of well-paid union jobs. By 1996, when McDevitt took over as president of Local 54, there were still a few U.S.-born union members who resented the new arrivals. Now, however, he says the membership is more united. “I’ve often said the only place in Atlantic City where people from all these communities can speak together as equals is in Local 54.”

That’s partly due to the realization that immigrants — even those trained as doctors or teachers in their home countries — wind up doing the jobs that many U.S.-born workers do not want. “In the U.S. there are a lot of jobs that Americans don’t line up to do,” McDevitt says. “Not many parents say to themselves, ‘I hope my son grows up to be a dishwasher, or that my daughter grows up to be a housekeeper.’ ” But for new immigrants wiling to work hard, casino and hospitality jobs are perfect. “It’s a great way for immigrant workers to establish themselves in the United States,” McDevitt explains.

The more diverse your population is, the better off you are, and the more resilient you are in bad times.

As these immigrants buy houses and build careers in an effort to gain a financial foothold, they put down roots. “These immigrants have a real stake in the community,” McDevitt says. “If they were typical native-born Americans, they’d have moved on, but these folks have staked out a claim here, and they aren’t going anywhere.” In New Jersey’s Second Congressional District, which wraps the southern tip of the state and includes Atlantic City, more than a quarter of the entertainment and hospitality workers are immigrants. “The more diverse your population is, the better off you are, and the more resilient you are in bad times,” says McDevitt.

It’s not only the casino industry that benefits. Immigrants in the district wield $1.4 billion in spending power and pay $522.7 million in taxes annually. They are also 24 percent more likely to open their own business than are U.S.-born residents in the district. “All you have to do is go down Atlantic Avenue and see who the stores are owned by,” says McDevitt. “It’s like Heinz 57 — you’ve got Bengali grocers, Mexican or South American stores, every iteration of immigrant group all along the main street.”

As the grandson of Italian immigrants, McDevitt can relate to the newcomers he works alongside, and he thinks they deserve the same opportunities his ancestors had. That includes a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, and a fair and streamlined visa process. “When I look at these people, I think about my own family — it’s pretty much the same story,” he says.

Mass deportations would be a disaster for America, McDevitt says. “Even if we had the political will to expel 12 million people, then what? Who’s going to work in the beef plants, or the poultry plants, or pick the apples? And how much is that going to cost?” he asks. “Nobody even thinks about that part.” The reality, McDevitt says, is that immigrants are a vital part of the U.S. economy. “If you were able to scoop them up — just rapture away all the undocumented people — half the businesses in this area would close for either lack of business or lack of workers,” he says.

This is the reason McDevitt doesn’t see immigration as a partisan issue. Former President Ronald Reagan recognized the need for immigrant labor, he notes, and he hopes President Trump will come around, too. “He’s thrived in industries that have a large component of immigrant workers, whether hospitality or construction,” he says. Anyone who’s worked in those industries knows the value of foreign-born workers and the economic boost immigrant labor brings, McDevitt says. “I don’t think the United States functions without immigrants.”

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