As the immigration debate rumbles on in this country, more than one pundit has pointed out that closing our borders could have a devastating effect on our economy, since industries built around labor employ large numbers of workers from foreign nations. This is particularly true of the restaurant industry, where many kitchens would cease to run if they lost their immigrant employees.
Independent restaurants may be able to fly under the radar for a while longer, but chains like Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill, which employs tens of thousands of people nationwide, have begun to come under scrutiny via government immigration audits -- and the results hurt.
Chipotle just faced up to its first immigration audit in Minnesota and was forced to hand over I-9 documentation for all 1,200 employees working in the state. When the government came back with a long list of employees it suspected were not authorized to work in the United States, Chipotle met with the people individually, gave them a chance to produce new documents, and then terminated anyone who couldn't do so, bestowing on them all payments, bonuses and unused vacation they were due, as well as a letter that reiterated why they were being let go.
"Let me be clear, if it were up to us, we would keep all these people," says Chris Arnold, director of public relations at Chipotle. "They're dedicated, hardworking people who have been with us for years. But under the law, we can't employ them."
That sentiment wasn't enough to save Chipotle from a group of protesters, who descended on Minnesota restaurants, lambasting the chain for firing the employees and alleging that Chipotle had mistreated 700 of its workers in firing them. The protesters were arrested for trespassing after they entered the restaurants with signs and chains -- making a tough time even tougher for the company,
"It's certainly a frustrating situation for us, because we'd rather not be dealing with this at all," says Arnold. "We'd rather employ those people. But we're bound by the law, and the law doesn't allow us to employ anyone who's not legally authorized in this country. Our hands are tied."
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Declining to say how many employees were affected by the government audit, Arnold adds this: "I will say that the 700 number is high by a significant margin," he says.
The protesters who were removed from the property were charged with misdemeanors.