Who would have expected that last week’s Restaurant Industry Summit would give Councilman Jim Kenney a chance to get fired up about the immigration policies of Philadelphia, of Pennsylvania, and of the United States of America? But there he was at Tequilas, the popular Center City Mexican restaurant, going off on the injustice of treating immigrant workers harshly—“whether documented or undocumented, I really don’t care,” he told an audience of nonprofit reps, restaurant workers, owners and media. “After 9/11, everyone became a ‘terrorist’—including that Mexican guy on a bike going from his lawn care job to his restaurant job. He is no threat to me, whatsoever. He is no threat to this country, whatsoever.”
The Philadelphia Restaurant Opportunity Center convened the summit to release its new report on the state of Philadelphia’s restaurant industry, titled “Behind the Kitchen Door.” The report notes that while Philadelphia is, indeed, experiencing a restaurant renaissance—restaurant jobs have increased in Philly by 40 percent over the last decade—immigrant workers are serving as the backbone. There are now 113,000 Philadelphians who work in food service, and about 25 percent of them are foreign-born. More than 50 percent of the immigrants contacted for the study admitted they were not documented—and only 5 percent said they were.
According to the councilman, that’s just fine. “There’s no reason in the world why an ICE agent should be waiting in a police station when a person is being brought in because they were drunk or because a person was brought in because they were smoking a joint,” Kenney continued. “When they pull up to the station house and there’s an ICE agent waiting there, something is wrong.” He’d change things if he could, he said: “If I were mayor of the city, we wouldn’t participate with ICE, whatsoever. We wouldn’t be involved in bars. We wouldn’t be doing any of that stuff.”
A former dishwasher, busboy and bartender in the ’70s, Kenney said he gets passionate about immigration issues because he thinks of how the Irish experienced the same sort of discrimination as those of Mexican and Latino descent do today. Pennsylvania, he said, “is a terrible state in terms of a reputation, with [State Rep.] Daryl Metcalfe and some of those other lunatics in Harrisburg. I would wish that every anti-immigrant bill they pass, they would exempt the city of Philadelphia—and the good [immigrants kicked out of other cities] would come here.”