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Without Immigrants, America’s Restaurant Industry ‘Would Collapse’

Sam Toia is president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association (IRA), which advocates on behalf of the industry and its workers. In the state of Illinois alone there are more than 27,000 restaurants, with total sales of $25.2 billion and more than 561,000 employees — nearly half of whom are immigrants.

“Immigrants are the backbone of the hospitality industry,” Toia says. “And it’s been that way for the last 100 years.” This is especially true in Chicago, where the food scene is booming and the general population is quite welcoming to immigrants, who make up 17.5 percent of the total population, according to New American Economy research. As Mayor Rahm Emanuel works to confirm Chicago’s status as a sanctuary city, Toia says the IRA is putting its full weight behind him. “We fully support the mayor’s efforts,” he says. “We want the immigrant community in Chicago — and throughout Illinois — to know: We’ve got your back.”

Immigrants are the backbone of the hospitality industry.

Toia says that nearly half of the immigrants working in the restaurant industry in Illinois are potentially undocumented, and he would like to see reform that puts hardworking people on a path to legal status, if not citizenship. He understands that the topic is a difficult one, but says that both Democrats and Republicans must come together to build comprehensive immigration reform. “Obviously, I’m living in a blue city in a blue state,” he says. “But let’s get together and get reform on the table. And let’s all understand that we are a country of immigrants.”

For the restaurant industry — both within Illinois and outside of it — the need for immigrant labor is only growing: The National Restaurant Association estimates that the restaurant industry will add 1.8 million jobs over the next decade, a 14 percent increase in the industry’s workforce. Given that the U.S.-born workforce is expected to grow by just 10 percent, that’s many more jobs than the American-born workforce will be able to fill, particularly since the population of 16- to 24-year-olds, who fill many restaurant jobs, isn’t expected to grow at all. In short, says Toia, without immigrants, “the industry would collapse.”

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