I came to the US almost three decades ago from a 5,000-person town in the Abruzzo region of Italy.
A year after my 1994 arrival in New York City, I won a green card through the Diversity Immigrant Visa program lottery. A few years later, I opened my first business — Tarallucci e Vino, an Italian restaurant and wine bar that now has four locations across Manhattan, plus a café in the Cooper Hewitt Museum.
I am just one of countless immigrants across our city and state who came to this country with little more than a dream and a willingness to work hard to achieve it. Today, 4.3 million immigrants in New York contribute $61.3 billion in state, local and federal taxes and boost our economy to the tune of $130 billion annually. This includes more than 600,000 undocumented immigrants.
When the pandemic hit, 69% of all immigrants, including 330,000 undocumented New Yorkers, worked in essential industries. However, decades of congressional inaction are preventing immigrants reaching their full potential in our labor force, and businesses like mine are paying the price.
The hospitality industry, which has long been the nation’s second-largest private employer, was hit particularly hard during the COVID crisis and is still struggling to find its footing. In the National Restaurant Association’s 2022 State of the Industry report, more than half of restaurant operators said it would be a year or more before business conditions return to normal.
True recovery is impossible, however, as long as we are unable to fully reopen, and that requires filling vacant positions. My own businesses are only operating at about 60% capacity, with just one site open for breakfast, lunch and dinner due to a lack of personnel.
Concerns related to the pandemic are certainly contributing to the labor shortage, but New York also faces other challenges. Most notably, it has experienced a marked decline in immigration. A recent analysis by FWD.us found that foreign-born individuals are leaving the state at rates that outpace incoming immigrants. On top of this, the number of immigrants in the state’s labor force steadily declined between 2015 and 2019.
If we are to have any hope of a long-term recovery, particularly as the pandemic-induced out-migration from New York City continues, we need policies that help immigrants work and contribute to society.
President Biden has revoked many of the harmful anti-immigrant policies established by his predecessor — including a block on Diversity Visa lottery winners like me. But an unusually low number of those visas were awarded in 2020 and 2021, and just 208 were issued in the first three months of 2022. This doesn’t make sense. I know many talented chefs in Italy who would love to come to the US, but they are unable to do so because there is no path to obtaining a visa in a reasonable amount of time.
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New York City has long been revered for its rich culinary scene, with restaurants and bars owned and operated by immigrants who have enhanced our city’s culture and diversity for generations. The thousands of restaurants located across the five boroughs represent the cuisines of more than 150 nations, according to a report from the state comptroller’s office.
The National Restaurant Association estimates that more than 40% of chefs and nearly a quarter of restaurant managers are foreign-born, and many more are front and back-of-the-house employees. Overall, immigrants play an outsized role in our country’s food production, making up 22% of all the workers in the US food supply chain.
My family and I were proud to support our city’s restaurant workforce during the pandemic through Feed the Frontlines NYC, an initiative we founded that kept individuals employed by them to prepare meals for essential healthcare workers and New Yorkers experiencing food insecurity.
Thanks to many generous supporters, our coalition of restaurant partners has delivered more than 250,000 nutritious meals at no cost to those receiving them. However, many immigrant-owned and operated restaurants remain in jeopardy, and without a course correction, the New York we all know today will suffer social, cultural, and economic consequences.
We need the innovation, work ethic and dedication of the immigrants who helped build this city, state, and nation, and will contribute to its future success. Elected officials must respond with smart, commonsense policies to put this critical population to work.
By allowing undocumented immigrants who have been calling the US home for an average of 20 years to obtain permanent resident status and expanding the availability of work visas, which allow individuals to enter the country for a fixed period of time, policymakers can speed the hospitality industry’s recovery and do right by the individuals who make all our local restaurants so special.
Di Pietro is the founder and owner of Tarallucci e Vino and co-founder of Feed the Frontlines.