First-Generation American Chef Says the Restaurant Industry Depends on Immigrants

Chef James Montejano has worked in some of the best restaurants in San Francisco and San Diego and knows that their success depends on talented trained kitchen staff performing daily miracles. Yet as the restaurant business continues to boom, chefs and restaurant owners are scrambling to find and retain the estimated 14 million workers` needed to keep the nation’s restaurants, bars, and coffee shops running. “In the restaurant industry, there aren’t enough cooks out there,” says Montejano, who recently became the executive chef at the Cardiff Seaside Market in northern San Diego, a gourmet grocery that specializes in prepared foods and catering. “From a business standpoint, you might lose valuable employees who don’t have the right documents and have to hire others who aren’t as good.”

Montejano wants to see immigration reform that makes it easier to hire immigrants, especially in the fiercely competitive restaurant industry, where mistakes can destroy reputations and businesses. At the same time, he hopes reform will benefit workers whose undocumented status prevents them from advancing and earning higher pay. He’d like to see a legal pathway for immigrants who are already in the country to stay here. He also supports requiring employers to sponsor English language programs so workers can be fully absorbed into American society. “I always tell my workers that they could start out as dishwashers and end up in better jobs. The opportunities are endless, but they have to immerse themselves in the culture and learn the language,” says Montejano. “For anyone who comes here, it should be mandatory that they take English classes.”

I always tell my workers that they could start out as dishwashers and end up in better jobs. The opportunities are endless, but they have to… learn the language.

Montejano knows the value of being able to navigate all facets of American society. He was born in California to two Mexican immigrants and grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in northern San Diego. “My mom worked six days a week as a maid in a big house, and the family took care of her and me,” he says. “I was the whitest Mexican you ever met. I was a coconut — brown on the outside but white on the inside,” says Montejano, who was prohibited from speaking Spanish at home and was exposed to Mexican culture once a week when he and his mom visited a Mexican neighborhood.

Montejano, now 52, wants more undocumented immigrants to benefit from such social mobility in the United States. His son already has become the first in his family to earn a post-graduate degree, a master’s in political science from the University of San Francisco. “It’s really endless what you can do here,” he says. But first, workers need to be in the system — legally. He says it’s not fair that they pay taxes and don’t receive a refund or the chance to take advantage of services. “Most immigrants are working two jobs just to survive. They’re good people who are looking to make a better life and achieve the American dream. We need to treat them right,” he says.

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…