When Jose Villa was a 16-year-old dishwasher, he didn’t mind putting in 72-hour weeks or working the graveyard shift at a diner in Kingston, New York. He didn’t mind the mile long walk back to the house he shared with four other people. It was very hard work, Villa says, but he had a plan: “When I came here, I had a goal set for myself. I was going to work hard and save my money, so that I could open a business.”
Thirty-four years later, Villa’s dreams have come true. With his wife, Casandra, and two of his three sons, Mark and Alexis, he owns and runs Casa Villa, a popular Kingston restaurant that serves between 850 and 2,000 customers a week.
Jobs like doing dishes, mopping floors — a lot of people don’t want to do them. The Latino people will do whatever it takes to feed our families. That’s what I did to achieve what I have.
Villa came to the United States from Mexico by himself in 1983, joining his brothers and sisters, who had preceded him. After washing dishes for three years, he was promoted to short-order cook. By 1997, he had saved enough money to open his first restaurant, El Rodeo. By that time he was also married with two kids. A year later, the couple bought their first house. In 2005, he got the opportunity to purchase the building in Kingston where Casa Villa is located. The Villas have been there ever since.
As a naturalized American citizen and an entrepreneur, Villa depends on his immigrant employees. “Jobs like doing dishes, mopping floors — a lot of people don’t want to do them. The Latino people will do whatever it takes to feed our families. That’s what I did to achieve what I have. You have to go though that,” he says.
According to research from New American Economy, the U.S. tourism and hospitality sector is expected to add nearly one million new jobs between 2014 and 2024. About 650,000 of those jobs will be in the food-service industry, where the majority of positions require less than a bachelor’s degree. At the same time, the number of U.S.-born workers at this skill level will continue to decline.
Foreign-born workers like Villa have traditionally filled these jobs, and Villa worries that if immigrants don’t have a clear path to legal residency and citizenship, many U.S. industries will suffer.
“Not having Latino people here would be a big, big hit for everyone. Not just me or the restaurant industry, but for everybody,” he says, noting that fruit and vegetable growers are already having a hard time finding enough workers to plant and harvest their crops.
Villa would like to see immigration reform that speeds the processing of visas. Some workers, he notes, have been in the application process for a decade or more.
“The way I see it, there should be immigration reform that enables the people who are already here, who only want to work hard and feed their families, to become legal residents and citizens,” he says. “Then you can have them paying taxes, buying houses and buying cars.” In Villa’s own congressional district, which straddles the Hudson Valley and the Catskills region, immigrants now pay $385 million in annual taxes and have spending power worth $940 million per year. It’s estimated that at least half of undocumented immigrants in the United States already pay income taxes, but that percentage would obviously grow substantially if those workers became citizens and received valid Social Security numbers.
Villa is grateful that he and Casandra have had the opportunity to buy a house, run a business, and raise their three sons in Kingston. In addition to Alexis, a recent graduate of a Chicago culinary institute, and Mark, who is studying to be a police officer, the Villas are the proud parents of Jose Jr., a senior at Kingston High School.
Villa is also thankful that the community has welcomed him so warmly and helped his business and his family thrive. He likes to give back by hosting fundraisers and other events, such as a recent drive that raised $10,000 for a young girl with cancer. “I love to be involved with the community,” he says. “They have given to me. Now I’m grateful I’ve had a chance to give back.”