Georgia's restaurant lobby is battling a new immigration law that it says is hurting member businesses by scaring away the staff. State Sen. Curt Thompson (D-Tucker) agrees that the law is "a huge drain" on the Norcross economy, but his colleague across the aisle says he's heard no complaints.
The Georgia Restaurant Association calculates that some Georgia restaurants are losing $21,000 a month in revenues due to the new state immigration law, Senate Bill 87. That law, passed earlier this year, will eventually require most businesses to check full-time hires' immigration status through the federal E-Verify database.
"These losses are being caused by not being able to fully staff restaurants," said GRA Executive Director Karen Bremer. When staff leave, for whatever reason, the restaurants must cut hours, tables and menus, she explained.
And "the persons applying for the jobs are just not qualified," she contended, for the hard work and demands of a kitchen.
She hinted at modest kitchen pay as well, noting that restaurants have been able to serve diners at fairly affordable prices. If restaurant costs go up, that may change.
However, she also noted that the survey was sent to some 3,000 restaurant e-mail addresses in late October and early November; of those, about 500 sent an answer. About 375 of those reported a labor shortage.
Some portion of that 500 responses included financial information about losses. It's from that pool that GRA calculated the $21,000 monthly loss.
"My district is on the I-85 corridor. We have Jimmy Carter Boulevard and Buford Highway. So we're probably ground zero for the effect," said Thompson, speaking after a Nov. 15 meeting of the state Senate Democratic Special Committee on Immigration and Georgia Economy, which he chairs.
Norcross Republican State Rep. Tom Rice voted for SB 87 earlier this year and stands by the E-Verify provisions. "In the district I serve I have not heard from one restaurant owner who suffers from a lack of staff due to this bill," Rice wrote in an email to Patch. "I do believe that jobs of any kind should be reserved for those who are legally here," he concluded.
Yet the GRA's Bremer insists the law has had an "alarming" impact on her members' kitchens and dining rooms.
Indeed, the law goes beyond E-Verify. Senate Bill 87 also makes it a crime to knowingly transport or shelter an illegal immigrant and gives local police the right to demand proof of legal residency during any routine traffic stop or other interaction. A range of activists are against that, from churches to the Southern Poverty Law Center to the American Civil Liberties Union. The last two are parties to a federal suit against the state over the transportation, harboring and local police provisions. A judge has suspended those parts until a hearing takes place.
Overall, Bremer said, "our workers are scared and leaving the cities."
Thompson said his district has seen a bit of an "exodus."
Some state Senate Democrats have called for the entire repeal of SB 87, something unlikely in political reality. Thompson stopped short of calling for repeal, saying that instead of writing state laws, Georgia needs to spend its political capitol on lobbying Washington for comprehensive immigration reform.