Anyone who dines out knows on some level that his or her meal was most likely prepared in part or in whole by recent immigrants. Tom Colicchio, while accepting his Beard award last week, thanked the immigrants who work in America’s kitchens. He noted that without them, “we wouldn’t have a [food] industry.” Anthony Bourdain has explored the topic on a number of occasions, perhaps never more skillfully than in his No Reservations episode focused on the U.S.-Mexico border.

On that front, a terrific essay from Minnesota-based chef Marianne Miller tells a small story with a big point. In it, she recounts confronting a restaurant owner about systematically cheating an employee out of wages by doctoring timecards and an employee who was fired after he complained about the situation.

“I asked him to please explain to Oscar why all of his times had been changed, that he didn’t understand why he was missing about two hours of pay each day, 40 hours total last month alone. With a grimace he spat, ‘I don’t have to explain to you or Oscar anything.  He should just consider himself lucky that I don’t call immigration and have him deported.’ Without a trace of anger or indignity, Oscar said, ‘I’m Puerto Rican.'”

In this case, the employee in question wasn’t an immigrant and had a bit of protection from the owner’s larceny, but the story’s less about happy circumstances than the vulnerability of those who are regularly used for cheap labor and discarded without a second thought. There’s no doubt that immigration is a complicated issue, but if there’s one thing that could be played up a bit more, it’s the humanity of those caught up in the legal wrangling and political grandstanding. Miller’s essay does a lovely job with exactly that.

Photo of illegal French workers demonstrating for equal rights: Flickr member austinevan under Creative Commons

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