Mixed views from biz owners on Obama’s immigration order

Workers at a farm off Sound Avenue in Riverhead in 2012. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

Workers at a farm off Sound Avenue in Riverhead in 2012. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

Business owners in local sectors long dependent on immigrant labor offered mixed views Friday on President Barack Obama’s executive action that will allow temporary worker status to millions of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.

While most farmers, winery and restaurant owners interviewed welcomed the policy shift, several had reservations on how it came about.

“I think a fix is needed and I think the president has taken an initiative that is welcome,” said Charles Massoud, owner of Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue. “But on the political end of it, this may not be a good outcome. This is a problem that needs to be addressed and resolved because it’s been festering for so long. The president’s intentions are good, but it seems to have exacerbated the divide in Washington, so it’s kind of a mixed thing.”

Mr. Obama spoke on national television Thursday night about the controversial executive order.

Among other things, it protects almost five million people whose children are U.S. citizens or lawful residents from deportation and, if those people have lived in the U.S. at least five years and pass background checks, they would be issued Social Security cards and work permits.

But a future president could reverse the order.

From a financial bottom line standpoint, restaurateur Tom Schaudel, who owns several restaurants on the North Fork and elsewhere on Long Island, said the policy change might offers “minuscule benefits,” at best.

“It does depress wages a little if you flood the market with lower wage workers,” Mr. Schaudel said.

“Personally, I’m in a business that has a lot of immigrant labor, and you know they’re very hard-working people, nice people for the most part,” he continued. “That being said, the politics is just that, grandstanding and bullsh– back and forth. I don’t think the really give a whiff about what happens to people. It’s just two sides trying to jockey for position for elections.”

Both men suspect the issue will keep cropping up every two years, with no real, permanent solution in sight.

Longtime Riverhead farmer Lyle Wells said he believes the president’s executive order could make finding workers an even bigger challenge for North Fork farmers.

“The downside is, the people who have been working quasi-legally in agriculture, once they have legal status, I don’t know whether they will stay in agriculture,” he said. “Agriculture is kind of the bottom of the food chain in regards to jobs.”

And that’s not a new phenomenon, he said.

“The amount of people needed for the workforce, from the 1970s into the 2000s, couldn’t be met domestically,” he said. “The hotel industry, the restaurant industry, construction, the agriculture industry, there just are not enough people — American or legal people coming into this country — to fill those jobs.”

A fellow Riverhead farmer, Jeff Rottkamp, said there’s still much uncertainty moving forward, as there’s never been a presidential executive order on immigration that’s so extensive.

“We’ve never had a situation like this in the country before, where we’ve had so many illegal people who are going to become legal,” Mr. Rottkamp said. “I have always been in favor of giving these folks a work visa — come and work for three, four, or five years, go home with their family for a year and then come back. But the government didn’t want to do that. I don’t know why. How this is going to turn out, it’s almost too early to tell.”

Mr. Massoud said he just hopes the policy doesn’t get reversed.

“If they don’t resolve their political issues in Washington, this thing is going to keep going back and forth like football,” he said. “If they can find a way to make his recommendations permanent, then I think it’s a good move for the country. In reality, if you go to New York City all the people in the kitchens are migrants from Latin America. Without them there would be no restaurant business in the city, likewise for the rest of the country.”

Mr. Wells called the Hispanic population “the economic driver of this country for the past 30 years.”

“Whether we like it or not,” he said, “they have taken manual labor jobs those things really most people don’t want to do anymore: running a jackhammer, cleaning beds and bathrooms, chopping vegetables, cleaning dishes.”

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