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N.J. 'Day Without Immigrants' protest shows consequences of an immigrant nation without immigrants

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Leo Cervantes, chef and owner, Chilangos Mexican restaurant in Highlands.
Leo Cervantes, chef and owner, Chilangos Mexican restaurant in Highlands. - ()

Some immigrants in New Jersey participated in the silent protest of “A Day Without Immigrants” Thursday to show what cities and schools would be like in their absence.

“New Brunswick is like a ghost town,” said Luis De La Hoz, vice chairman of the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Meanwhile, owner of Chilangos in Highlands, Leo Cervantes, confronted the issue with a “sarcastic” response, he said.

The idea began when some of his employees approached him Wednesday and said they wanted to participate in the silent protest.

He supported their efforts and said he would shut down his business.

But then, an idea struck.

What if, with the four non-immigrant employees he had, he did open for dinner as usual, but rather than serve his usual fare, offer hot dogs and hamburgers instead?

Cervantes bought 30 hot dogs and 40 hamburgers, and anticipated the night would be a “total loss.”

By early Thursday evening, he already encountered several upset customers, while others understood the joke.

“We’ll end up eating (the hot dogs and hamburgers) tomorrow ourselves,” Cervantes said.

But he doesn’t regret the statement.

“People don’t realize how we could be affected in the restaurant and hotel industry by the immigration laws and the tax they are talking about for products from Mexico,” Cervantes said. “Listen, I’m a U.S. Citizen now. My priority is this country. My kids go to school here, I pay taxes, I contribute to the economy of this country, I own two restaurants, I own three houses, I have two food trucks...I was born in Mexico but I live here now. This is my country.”

Image courtesy of Leo Cervantes.
Image courtesy of Leo Cervantes. - ()

He also has to balance the interests of his business, which imports more than 200 different types of tequila from Mexico, as well as the avocados he needs to serve guacamole.

Recently, when there was a shortage of avocados, a crate that cost $30 on average shot up to more than $100. That meant selling guacamole at a loss of $3 per serving at his restaurant.

If that became the norm, he could go out of business, he said.

In addition, Cervantes is one of many Hurricane Sandy victims whose comeback story has been made famous with the help of Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who helped him cut through red tape to get his business back off the ground.

But that doesn’t mean all is well.

The damage to his business was estimated at about $300,000, which insurance only reimbursed half of and Cervantes is still fighting for the rest, he said. In addition, he still had to pay mortgage, electricity and other bills when the restaurant was closed for nine months after the hurricane.

Though business is returning, there is still a long way to go before he can recoup the loss. And with the threat of taxes on the items he needs, the future looks uncertain.

On an average Thursday, he can seat between 70-120 customers in the winter and spring months. In addition to staying open despite the protest, he also needed to buy the meat and breads for his special Thursday menu. Overall it would be a loss, but nothing compared to the nine months after Sandy, and nothing compared to having to permanently shut down if costs skyrocket.

The liquor distributor he uses told Cervantes he sells two million cases of Corona and Negra Modelo in five counties in New Jersey annually. The tax could make those numbers plummet.

“It’s a chain reaction with all these policies and these crazy laws,” Cervantes said.

After hearing about Cervantes’ idea, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez said he thought the day was very impactful.

“The Day without Immigrants showed vividly the consequences” of an immigrant nation without its immigrants, he said. “In fact, today (Congressional) staff could not get their breakfast because immigrants are the staff.

“I applaud him for opening up his restaurant and showing the limits of what can be produced without immigrants. This is a reality of our country. So many immigrants wanted to join but were fearful to or couldn’t just afford it, but even with that, it’s an enormous result today and I think it showed the impact.”

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Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@njbiz.com

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