In many restaurants across the United States, there are people behind the scenes that keep things moving.  Most patrons will never see them and don’t even think about them during their meal.  They wash dishes, cook, bus tables, and clean up after everyone else has gone home.  And many are undocumented workers.  According to a New York Times’ survey, 36 percent of people working in New York restaurants, an $8 billion industry, were undocumented.

Most of the immigrants are from South and Central America and Asia, the largest group coming from Mexico.  Jorge Martinez Flores, 23, is part of the undocumented Mexican community and has worked in kitchens in New Jersey and Illinois, often staying at a place for less than a year, sometimes only a few months. 

“The problem is that there are always other Mexicans willing to do the same job as me,” Flores mentioned when recalling being fired after a fight at a previous job.  While working at Enclave, a nightclub in Chicago, Flores was involved in a fight between two groups of Mexican immigrants working at the club.  That night eight people involved in the fight were fired. 

“If they were other people [non-immigrant employees], maybe they would be talked to first, but we’re Mexican and they can hire eight more the next day.  They [the employers] don’t care if we’re good employees they just want us to work for cheap.”

As Flores describes, if the people involved in the fight held other positions, the fight would have been handled differently.  To fire eight members of the staff in one night would essentially mean the restaurant would have to close until it could rehire the lost staff.  But the reality is that eight new employees could be hired in one day and the club could reopen the following night.

For immigrants from Latin America, the job market is fairly competitive, whether they are legally authorized to work or not.   For those immigrants that are undocumented, they do not have job security.  Undocumented immigrants are often forced to work long hours for little pay.  Flores is currently a dishwasher at a bar in Chicago and works six nights a week, from 5 p.m. until 2 a.m.  If the other dishwasher who works one night a week needs his shift covered, Flores ends up working 13 consecutive days. 

“When I first started they could not find another dishwasher to work Saturdays, so I worked a full month,” he recalled. 

Ultimately these immigrants working behind the scenes are afforded few of the basic rights in the workplace.  The problem, particularly for those whose immigration status doesn’t allow them to work legally, is that their labor and dedication does not translate into advancement or promotions.  Flores is currently taking classes to improve his English, a sign that he intends to stay in the United States for a long while.

“Last month I started taking classes to improve my English.  I think maybe I can work in other positions.  Even if I don’t have a green card, if I can work and speak pretty good English, that’s something most Mexican [immigrants] can’t do.”

Flores does not want to spend the rest of his working life limited to only being able to wash dishes or bus tables.  Improved English skills will help him, but ultimately what he needs is a way of being able to legally work in the United States so he can enter the mainstream job market in Chicago. 

That he cannot get, which leaves him in a catch-22, all the while working unseen as hard as he can.