With a U.S. president who has made immigration reform a priority and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle committed to making it happen, 2013 is expected to be a year of comprehensive change surrounding the estimated 11 million undocumented residents nationwide.
In late April a bipartisan group of senators — known as the Gang of Eight — unveiled the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013. The legislation has won the support of foodservice industry lobbying groups, including the National Restaurant Association and the International Franchise Association, for what proponents call a “tough but fair” path to legal work status and possibly citizenship.
This is part of a special report from Nation’s Restaurant News. See the full section >> 
While the proposal is among several that are cooking in both houses of Congress, and the details are likely to change, it has been widely regarded as a milestone for compromise on the contentious issue of immigration and will likely serve as a framework for the eventual policy to come.
Roughly 1.4 million undocumented immigrants are believed to work in the U.S. foodservice industry, which employs about 13.1 million people overall, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Restaurant operators say immigration reform is crucial not only for the foodservice industry, but also for the supply chain that supports it.
“We have to find a way for restaurant chains to safely and securely employ those who are willing to work in our businesses,” said Don Fox, chief executive of Firehouse of America LLC, the Jacksonville, Fla.- based parent to the Firehouse Subs chain.
The Gang of Eight includes Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Robert Menendez, D-N.J.; Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; John McCain, R-Ariz.; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Marco Rubio, R Fla.; and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. First and foremost, their proposal would beef up border security to reduce the number of people entering the country illegally.
Once certain goals related to securing the border are achieved, however, the plan provides for the creation of a path to legal work status — a key aspect of the proposal for the restaurant industry.
Under the plan, certain undocumented residents would be able to apply for legal status as “registered provisional immigrants.” If approved, they could work for any employer and travel outside the country.
It would take about a decade for undocumented workers to earn a green card and another three years beyond that to achieve citizenship. Those workers would also have to pay a fine and back taxes, and pass a background check.
In addition, the bill would create a guestworker program, known as a W visa, for lower-skilled workers. The number of workers who would be allowed to use the three-year W visas would be capped each year, and employers would have to register to use the program to fillll positions.
Another significant component of the proposal is that it would require all employers to use the national E-Verify employment verification system. Currently, the use of E-Verify is voluntary except in a few states.
Authors of the legislation contend that the use of E-Verify would protect against identity the and curtail the hiring of illegal workers.
Operators say they are not opposed to a mandate “as long as it’s a system that works,” said Fox of Firehouse Subs. “Having a more secure, sound method to validate citizenship would be a value to us.”
What the industry is saying
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The NRA has long pushed for a permanent pathway to legal work status for undocumented workers as well as the adoption of an uncomplicated federal employment verification system that gives employers some certainty in regard to their legal obligations.
One goal, according to NRA officials, is establishing a federal system that would pre-empt the current patchwork of state and local laws that expose employers to unfair liability.
In recent years several states have enacted legislation favoring their own employment eligibility verification programs over the federal E-Verify system.
Steve Caldeira, IFA’s president and CEO, said the proposed cap on guest workers — currently set at 20,000 — needs to be addressed.
“The W visa program is clearly a positive step toward creating a pathway for the future flow of workers needed to fill jobs in the restaurant, hospitality and service sectors in franchising, but we will also continue to advocate vigorously to expand the caps the current bill places on the number of foreign workers employers can access,” he said in a statement.
The IFA also hopes to see safeguards for employers using the E-Verify system.
“Small-business owners in franchising must be able to use the E-Verify system efficiently and without an overly costly burden,” said Caldeira. “A safe harbor for employers who comply with E-Verify but unknowingly hire illegal workers due to fraud is critical, and IFA will work with lawmakers to ensure that adequate protections remain in the final language.”