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How Two Philadelphia Chefs Are Pushing for Immigration Reform — Starting in the Kitchen

Husband-and-wife team Cristina Martinez and Ben Miller are moving beyond barbacoa to fight for the undocumented workers in kitchens across the city.
The dining room at South Philly Barbacoa.

The dining room at South Philly Barbacoa.

South Philly Barbacoa stands distinct among the red brick row houses in Philadelphia’s East Passyunk neighborhood. Across the restaurant’s facade, a mural swirled in shades of coral, turquoise, teal, and orange suggests a mosaic of people — blue eyes and blue lips transform a window into a nose, and two sketched faces peer out over the doorway. Cross the threshold, and a tambourine jingles from the cord of the shade on the front door.

Inside, two ceiling fans whir on full speed above a dining room of seven tables whose brightly laminated tablecloths are adorned with sunflowers, pineapples, and bunches of cherries. The restaurant’s bright yellow walls hold framed portraits by local artist Isaiah Zagar, whose mosaic murals can be found across Philadelphia (and just outside the door). In the back of the room, pastry stands filled with bread and cakes share a table with a cooler of fresh watermelon juice.

Down a short corridor on the left lies the kitchen, which, as with all restaurant kitchens, tends to descend into a cacophony of clanking pans and sharp, hushed commands. This is where you’ll find Cristina Martinez and Ben Miller. They own South Philly Barbacoa, which specializes in lamb barbacoa, particular to Martinez’s hometown of Capulhuac, Mexico. Stewed overnight until tender in the juice of its own drippings, barbacoa is as much a tradition as a dish. Though a certain fast-casual chain has popularized it in recent years, this isn’t your Chipotle-style barbacoa.

Martinez and Miller stand out from their peers in Philadelphia’s rising food scene. They’re seeking to harness the power of restaurant owners — a potential force in this era of the celebrity chef — as advocates for immigration across the city. You can see it in the restaurant itself, where a sign hangs from the chalkboard menu advertising English lessons, and, on any given day, you might find Miller and Martinez in the dining room talking politics with their patrons. Their fight is deeply personal: Martinez is an immigrant with little hope of becoming an American citizen.

Cristina Martinez was born into a barbacoa family in a barbacoa town. On weekends, all the barbacoa families would fan out to sell lamb in nearby cities and towns. Growing up, she sold tortillas; her father taught her how to slaughter lamb. When she was 17, Martinez married her first husband, and they made barbacoa together while raising four children. But the relationship ended in divorce, and Martinez traveled east with her daughter to stay with her sister in Cancun, where she set up her own barbacoa stand. Once again, she took up the family trade.

But Martinez knew she would never make enough money selling barbacoa on the street to pay for her daughter’s education. Her sister’s ex-husband lived in Philadelphia, and, in 2006, he paid for a coyote to take her across the desert toward the United States. Though she was stopped and finger-printed, Martinez managed to duck across the border. From there, she headed to Philadelphia.

After working in the city for about a year, she’d earned enough money to return home and open a restaurant in Capulhuac. But that wasn’t enough, either — Martinez’s daughter, about 17 years old at the time, now had her eyes set on nursing school. So, in 2009, hoping to give her daughter that opportunity, Martinez once more ducked the border, and once more she settled in Philadelphia, this time landing a job as an entry-level prep cook at Amis, Marc Vetri’s much-loved Roman trattoria. After just a few months, she was promoted to a managerial position.

That’s where Martinez met Ben Miller. A Pennsylvania native, Miller had been working in restaurants his whole life; as a child, he used to lend a hand at his grandparents’ place. After taking a few years away to travel after high school, Miller had gotten back into restaurant work about four years earlier, starting out as a dishwasher and working his way up to a coveted line cook gig at Amis. That’s where he met Martinez.

Barbacoa and pancita tacos and consommé at a Cinco de Mayo party.

Barbacoa and pancita tacos and consommé at a Cinco de Mayo party.

By July 2012, they were married. Eager to gain citizenship for Martinez — and to do so lawfully — the couple hired an immigration lawyer, who advised Martinez to disclose her status to her employers and apply for a waiver to quickly re-enter America legally. Martinez and Miller spent about $10,000 on the waiver and told her bosses at Amis.

They fired her. Worse still, her lawyer dropped off the map, and a new lawyer later informed the couple that Martinez had never been eligible for the waiver. Under a 1990s-era immigration law, anyone who has entered the U.S. illegally must go back to their home country for 10 years before they can even apply to re-enter — and they’re not eligible for a waiver to shorten the time. For an immigrant with a job or a spouse or other family in the U.S., 10 years is a long time.

“It’s a lobster trap,” explains immigration lawyer Thomas Griffin, designed to hold immigrants in rather than push them out. The 10-year bar is only triggered when an immigrant leaves the U.S. for a second time, meaning that immigrants who have come and gone at least once like Martinez have no incentive to leave again for a lawful inspection to re-enter the country. And since federal authorities usually prioritize violent criminals, drug-dealers, and drunk drivers for deportation, it’s worth the risk for Martinez and others in her situation to stay in the U.S., where they have families and job opportunities. Griffin argues that this is the most difficult obstacle in all of immigration law, and yet he and his colleagues see it all the time. “The lobster trap has gotten fuller and fuller,” he says. And Martinez is caught in it.

“The lobster trap has gotten fuller and fuller.”

This is the story that Ben Miller tells whenever given an opening. The shock of his wife’s experience has driven him to an activism that has gone from simple tweets to organizing an alliance for undocumented workers’ rights. Though Miller and Martinez are leading the immigration reform movement together, Miller is the public face of it — a fact that he’s aware isn’t necessarily ideal as a white male American citizen. But Martinez says that, given her limited English, she relies on her husband to literally speak her words and express her feelings. She says privately that her husband very much represents her beliefs.

The rise of food television has transformed blue-collar cooking jobs into breeding grounds for celebrity. Chef Mario Batali owns restaurants around the world, co-hosts The Chew, and is famous for his ubiquitous orange Crocs. Gordon Ramsay, once revered for his Michelin star-worthy cooking, is now known for his turn as the passionate, viscous host of Kitchen Nightmares. And Bobby Flay has hosted a number of TV shows while running a handful of restaurants and a lifestyle website with fitness tips. Chefs have groupies now, and even casual food lovers in Philadelphia know the names of people like José Garces and Marc Vetri. Suddenly, thanks in part to the TV notoriety, chefs who believed in causes like the farm-to-table movement and sustainability had a platform to advocate for those beliefs.

“We have our own section of the newspaper,” Miller says, referring to the food sections of national newspapers. But there are also dozens of magazines, websites, and niche blogs that have sprung up to feed our food-obsessed culture. Miller figured he could take advantage of that passion for his own cause: immigration.

And Miller is not alone. The renowned Washington, D.C.-based José Andrés — originally from Spain and now a U.S. citizen — has repeatedly made his case for immigration reform. In 2013, when Congress was debating the issue, Andrés wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post, arguing that, “[if other immigrants had the chance to pursue their dreams … all of America would benefit. As legal residents, immigrants would contribute more in taxes, spend more at our businesses, start companies of their own and create more jobs. Immigration is not a problem for us to solve but an opportunity for America to seize.” More recently, Anthony Bourdain slammed Donald Trump for the devastating effect his deportation plan would have on restaurants everywhere.

Miller discovered his own platform as he and his wife worked to open South Philly Barbacoa. After Martinez lost her job, the two of them improvised a new plan to take advantage of her roots. Martinez had kept up the barbacoa tradition during her years at Amis, staging pop-ups and parties at friends’ homes. She and Miller began to invite friends over for weekly Sunday morning barbacoa in their own apartment, which became so well-attended they feared it would disturb their landlord who lived below.

South Philly Barbacoa’s 11th Street facade was designed by famed Philadelphia mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar.

South Philly Barbacoa’s 11th Street facade was designed by famed Philadelphia mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar.

In January 2014, they moved the enterprise to a proper food cart. They sold out of food by 11 a.m. their first Sunday on the streets. That success translated to their current brick-and-mortar location, which opened in July 2015. All the while, they were getting press coverage from places like the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia City Paper, and the Passyunk Post.

Miller, meanwhile, had started to take his cause to social media. In April 2015, he wrote from the barbacoa cart’s Twitter account: “I don’t just use twitter to promote my business. We must support an end to police brutality and amnesty for immigrants. We’re all God’s people.” Miller took it a bit further the next day, writing:

Chefs and restaurant owners should stand behind their immigrant workers and help them obtain rights. Stand in the fire with your workers and don’t claim ignorance. You know that ID was fake and you know how they got here! Undocumented restaurant workers need a union, of chefs, owners, lawyers, and advocates that will fight.

The response was lackluster. But Miller is excitable and passionate; he’s the guy who keeps paperbacks about prison reform tucked behind shelves in his kitchen. He spent the summer continuing his Twitter activism, even reaching out to the Philadelphia Inquirer to share Martinez’s undocumented status. Though the public admission would seem to put Martinez at greater risk of deportation, she and Miller believed it was unlikely given the more pressing priorities — and limited resources — of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Griffin, the lawyer, notes that going go to the press was perhaps a savvy move, as it effectively turned Martinez into a public figure—one whose deportation could spark protests. In October, the paper’s immigration beat writer Michael Matza visited South Philly Barbacoa and wrote a profile-raising piece about the couple’s activism. After that, a coalition began to form.

Miller first heard from one like-minded taco-slinger, Tom McCusker of Honest Tom’s Taco Shop, who liked Miller’s calls to action on social media. They soon pulled in their lawyer, Griffin, and Calvin Okunoye, a coordinator at the workers’ rights group Restaurant Opportunities Center of Philadelphia. Together, the group came up with the idea for a dinner series to educate the local food community about the abuses undocumented workers face in the restaurant industry, and to explore how chefs could help. That project launched in late November, drawing the participation of popular local chefs like Han Chiang of Han Dynasty, Brad Spence from Amis, and Laurel’s Nick Elmi.

The movement seemed to resonate with restaurateurs. As the Inquirer article mentioned, the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that about 20 percent of American cooks entered the country illegally, along with 28 percent of restaurant dishwashers. “It’s no secret that immigrants, many of them undocumented, are essential to America’s $550-billion-a-year restaurant trade,” Matza wrote in the Inquirer.

Those statistics explain why Martinez, Miller, and their ilk believe chefs have a unique platform as advocates for immigration reform. The food industry runs on the backs of immigrants, says the Restaurant Opportunities Center’s Okunoye. That’s what made Miller so angry as he watched the managers at Amis let Martinez go after having benefited from her work for years. (The Vetri Family didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Employers, of course, are obligated to fire an employee who’s not legally permitted to work in this country. Because of that, restaurant hiring often hangs on a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy. Immigrants obtain fake Social Security numbers from their networks, and employers don’t scrutinize their employees’ employment forms too closely. Mike Strauss, owner of Philadelphia’s Taproom on 19th, says a lot of restaurateurs just turn a blind eye to it. “Everyone has some kind of paperwork when they apply,” he adds. Several people interviewed even say that they’ve seen owners encourage prospective workers to obtain fake documentation.

Even though there are penalties for all of this, restaurant owners do it anyway. They do it because they can pay these unskilled laborers less and because they don’t necessarily have anyone else to take on those jobs. (Right now, many big-city chefs are complaining about a cook shortage.) Restaurant owners have a financial stake in immigrant labor. So it makes sense for them to have a voice in the immigration debate. Politicians in Harrisburg and city hall are debating laws that affect restaurants, Okunoye says, “and guess who’s not at the table?”

Left: In April, South Philly Barbacoa hosted one of its Right to Work dinners at Isaiah Zagar’s warehouse. | Cristina Martinez and Ben Miller, owners of South Philly Barbacoa.

Left: In April, South Philly Barbacoa hosted one of its Right to Work dinners at Isaiah Zagar’s warehouse. | Cristina Martinez and Ben Miller, owners of South Philly Barbacoa.

One such potential law is an expansion of E-Verify. The program — which allows employers to quickly check a worker’s eligibility status online — is optional for Pennsylvania businesses. But scores of Republican politicians, including presidential hopeful Donald Trump, support mandating its use. That would be brutal for restaurants, as the Philadelphia dining scene discovered earlier this year: In February, Urban Outfitters acquired Marc Vetri’s restaurant group and ran all of its existing employees through E-Verify to ensure they were eligible to work. As a result, Vetri was forced to lay off 30 employees, some of whom had worked for the company for up to a decade. For some restaurateurs, E-Verify might make sense. But, as Billy Penn points out, undocumented workers are generally more willing to take on the lower-paying jobs of the restaurant industry. E-Verify would only make it harder to fill those jobs.

The owner-as-advocate approach has been effective for immigration in the past. A few years ago, Texas restaurateur Brad Bailey led an immigration reform movement that made a national guest-worker program a plank of the Texas Republican Party’s platform. (That work was undone two years later under the leadership of Ted Cruz.) Nicole Kligerman, a community organizer for the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, says it makes a difference to have business owners driving a movement. “It feels significant to have the employers say, no, our business cannot work without them,” she says. Okunoye agrees. When his Restaurant Opportunities Center of Philadelphia meets with the Pennsylvania General Assembly, legislators always want to hear more from employers than workers.

Reform activists argue that restaurant owners have a moral obligation here. As Kligerman sees it, immigration reform is an extension of the farm-to-table movement that the food world has rallied behind in recent years. These workers are “the hands that are preparing your food,” she says. Miller believes there are only two humane stances for those who employ undocumented immigrants: deportation or legalization. “Do we really want to live in a country with an exploitable working class?” he asks. Undocumented workers don’t have a voice, so restaurateurs need to speak for them. “The restaurant industry is huge,” Martinez says. “We feed the people living in this country and the owners have the power to help us. They have the power to change the system.”

And chefs might be able to influence politicos outside of the state capitol building. Griffin argues that they can use their own restaurants to educate diners on how immigration policies would affect their own dining habits. “Philly is a destination town for food. The mayor is always seen out eating somewhere. The movers and shakers love coming here for the restaurants,” he says. “There can’t be any closer interface between [them and] illegal immigrants than right here. We can use restaurants as a forum to educate and open people’s eyes. Do you know why there are so many great restaurants here and why prices are so good? Look into the kitchen.”

Within the red brick walls of South Philly Barbacoa, there’s a near-constant buzz—talk of politics and reform. Customers who have read about Martinez in the paper come in wanting to support her (and try her barbacoa). Once they’re in the door, Miller engages them in conversation. One weekday in April, the restaurant hosted a breakfast for Fight for $15 activists who had spent the early morning hours protesting outside of a McDonald’s for higher wages; their server, Stephanie, poured coffee while wearing a white-and-red ringer tee emblazoned with “Fight for Philly” over a blue Liberty Bell. Later, on a sunny afternoon, Miller and an employee sit in the bright yellow dining room and discuss whether the movement should pursue citizenship or a guest-worker program — and, as citizens, whether they should even be the ones to decide. But what Martinez wants is straightforward: She wants the right to work in America, and the right to visit her daughter in Mexico. “That would be enough,” she says.

About one month ago, Miller was hunched in front of his computer reading an email draft. It was his most radical action yet: “Imagine if many of the top restaurants in the city came out and made a public declaration that we will hire people regardless of their immigration status!” he wrote. “This would be an unprecedented civil disobedience by a coalition of restaurant owners to force the system to change.”

It would not be easy to defy federal law, he knew. But he invited his peers to meet on April 25 to discuss the implications with the team of legal advisers he’d cultivated over the past few months for his newly named Popular Alliance for Undocumented Workers’ Rights. The email was long, and, at over 1,600 words, admittedly rambling in nature. Miller wasn’t sure if it was readable enough to send out. He called Martinez over for advice. “Just send it,” she said, looking over his shoulder.

“We feed the people living in this country and the owners have the power to help us. They have the power to change the system.”

But weeks later, Miller still has yet to receive any response to his email, save from a few chefs who briefly brought it up to him in person.“We’ve changed the way people eat and buy food,” Miller says, “but it’s kind of disappointing how little activism there really is.” For chefs to effect any real political change, the movement needs to be bigger, either through a significant number of restaurateurs or a few big names—like Marc Vetri, Stephen Starr, or Jose Garces. “The game is going to change in Philadelphia if that happens,” Okunoye says. “Every line cook will talk about it if that happens. The role of the celebrity chef is enormous.” But that’s not happening locally. (Representatives for Vetri, Starr, Garces, and Zahav’s Mike Solomonov all declined requests for interviews.)

Some chefs and restaurant owners prefer the status quo, especially those inclined to exploit workers for cheap labor. But even more sympathetic restaurant owners have their own reasons to stay quiet. Some fear the consequences of speaking out — could their businesses be targeted for federal raids? Others are hamstrung by their business partners or financial backers. (There’s also an issue of education: Many chefs and restaurateurs don’t have the resources or political know-how to speak out, Miller argues.)

Still, it seems like a missed opportunity. “Philadelphia is a progressive city,” Miller says. “We can lead the way on this.” On his first day in office, newly elected mayor Jim Kenney reinstated Philadelphia as a sanctuary city, meaning the local police do not coordinate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The mayor also supports Miller’s chef-led movement. While campaigning last fall, Kenney visited South Philly Barbacoa to discuss immigration reform. He told Miller to reach out if Martinez had any trouble, and the three remain in touch — Miller recently spoke at city hall in favor of Kenney’s proposed soda tax and, in late May, Kenney met with Miller, Martinez, and a dozen other chefs over dinner to discuss small steps that could take the movement forward.

Miller says he knows there’s a lot left to learn about community organizing; for one, he’s realized he has to be less radical when he speaks to other chefs. Martinez, who is less of a firebrand than her husband (at least when speaking in English) agrees that’s the key to building the movement. “We don’t want to risk anybody’s livelihood,” Martinez says. “We just want people’s support. We’re not trying to risk our lives having strikes or protests. This is being built on positivity. Many generations before, people had to shed blood for change. We want to try to change things in a peaceful way.”

Around 7 p.m. on the last Monday in April, a crowd filters into a warehouse around the corner from South Philly Barbacoa. Inside is a riot of color and sound. Two long tables are dotted with mosaic centerpieces and enormous ceramic bowls filled with hunks of bread. Most of the seats are empty while diners drift around the cavernous space, two floors filled with spiraling mosaic portraits in bright pastels. Instrumental hip-hop provides ambiance. Chefs in aprons scurry around a staged kitchen area. This is Isaiah Zagar’s Watkins Street Warehouse, and he’s playing host to the Popular Alliance for Undocumented Workers’ Rights’ latest dinner.

Miller and Martinez sweep into the dinner just as it’s about to begin. They had been at South Philly Barbacoa, hosting the meeting that Miller had promised could answers chefs’ questions about civil disobedience. But out of the 70 or so chefs and restaurateurs who Miller had spent the previous weeks canvassing, only one showed up. “Maybe I’m taking the wrong approach,” he says with a pained look as he stands by the water station watching servers bring out the first course. “Maybe we need to get the workers to rise and strike.”

For now, at the Right to Work dinners, it is mostly the workers who are speaking out. While the chefs remain ensconced in the kitchen, the evening is peppered with the voices of young workers. A young woman who coordinates events for South Philly Barbacoa talks about her last job at a popular restaurant, where many of her co-workers were undocumented. They were recruited for their jobs, she says, but were constantly turned down for promotions.

Over dessert, a generous helping of rhubarb shortcake made by Valerie Erwin of the Gee Chee Girl Cafe, Martinez steps up to the microphone near the entrance to the warehouse. Miller, as usual, translates for her. “There’s a lot of things in my heart I want to express,” she says. “In each one of you, I can see the support. In each of your hearts, I can see my brother or sister. My passion is great for cooking and working with chefs [who are] putting their hearts into the food. And I hope when you go out to eat you think about the people who are working who are down. We work hard for you all with the hope to enjoy the fruits of our labor.”