Resolved in Philadelphia: Even undocumented immigrants have a fundamental right to earn a living

Philadelphia City Council on Thursday approved a non-binding resolution recognizing "every person’s fundamental right to earn a living, regardless of immigration status." Here, Estella Hernandez speaks in support of the immigration resolution.

Burnishing Philadelphia’s image as receptive to hardworking immigrants, City Council on Thursday recognized “every person’s right to earn a living, regardless of immigration status.”

Aimed at every kind of workplace, the resolution focuses on restaurants and employees who commonly lack working papers, which leaves them “vulnerable to discrimination, abuse, dangerous working conditions [and] wage theft.”

In public comment before the 14-3 vote, Abraham Lorenzo, who came to Philadelphia from Mexico City 15 years ago, said he is a server at a Center City restaurant.

“From 2005 to 2016 they did not even pay me a minimum wage. I lived off of tips. And they took money from my tips for broken dishes or glasses, and credit-card fees. I knew what they were doing was wrong [but] I wanted to keep my job,” he said.

“A lot of the people I work with have families and they were terrified of retaliation, whether it was losing their jobs or being deported. … Philadelphia relies on its immigrant workers. We are the chefs, waiters, dishwashers, you name it,” said Lorenzo. “Some employers take advantage of us because they think they can. … While we might not be able to fix immigration, Philadelphia can create a culture that recognizes all workers, regardless of their immigration status, and treats [them] fairly.”

Calvin Okunoye of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Philadelphia, an advocacy group, testified that “immigrants are the lifeblood” of commercial kitchens. But now, he said, “anti-immigrant rhetoric” is “the politics du jour,” making their lives harder.

The resolution is not binding on any employer. It is a symbolic statement at a time when immigrants say they are feeling the pressure of stepped-up enforcement ordered by President Trump.

"The employment authorization laws in place that criminalize work need to change ...," said immigration lawyer David Bennion, "and Philadelphia can help lead the way."  

Supporters stood in the gallery and held up posters that read, “Stop Criminalizing Work” and “Justice for All Workers.”

The resolution, introduced by Councilwoman Helen Gym and four cosponsors, was crafted with input from Temple University Law School’s Sheller Center for Social Justice.

Republican Council members Brian O’Neill, David Oh, and Al Taubenberger voted against it.

Taubenberger said that as the son of an immigrant “who spoke more German than English when he arrived” and found work as a dishwasher, he was sensitive to the struggles of immigrants.

“But there is a difference between illegal immigration and exploitation in the restaurant industry,” he said. So while he supported  “the spirit” of the resolution, “the language is cumbersome,” he added.