Ethics of Hiring Illegal Immigrants

Should restaurants (and other companies) stop hiring illegal immigrants? What would happen if they did?

The question is posed here, on the NYT‘s “Diner’s Journal” blog: What If Restaurants Stopped Hiring Illegal Immigrants?

What if the restaurant industry — one of the largest employers of immigrants, a good number of whom, it is no secret, are undocumented — had to do it all above board? (According to 2008 estimates from the Pew Hispanic Center, illegal immigrants make up about 20 percent of the nation’s chefs, head cooks and cooks, and about 28 percent of its dishwashers.) That’s the intention, at least, of the Obama Administration’s intensified crackdown on employers that hire illegal immigrants, with businesses including restaurants now facing more scrutiny than they have in decades.

Some restaurateurs say that the cost of a meal would shoot up if they were forced to comply with immigration and labor laws….

So, let’s think through some of the ethically-relevant factors.

First, refusing to hire (or choosing to fire) illegal immigrants would drive up the cost of a restaurant meal. That would be bad for restaurant customers. Now, most people think of restaurant meals as a luxury, so a slight increase in price isn’t exactly ethically abhorrent. But when we think of an increase in the price of restaurant meals, we shouldn’t only think of fine dining: such increases would presumably also affect greasy spoons and other non-glamourous eateries, and hence hit many middle- and working-class families in the pocketbook. But still, restaurant meals are generally not a necessity, and anyone who wants one arguably has an obligation to pay the full price of legally obtaining the factors that go into producing it.

Second, it’s worth pointing out that, ethically, there is a general and strong presumption in favour of following the law. And if the term “corporate citizenship” means anything at all, it ought to include a citizen-like duty to act in a law-abiding way.

Third, if restaurants stopped hiring illegal immigrants, it would obviously be bad for those illegal immigrants; and it would be good for whomever got those jobs instead. In terms of total numbers, this is very nearly a zero-sum game, except for the possibility that fewer people over all would be hired at the higher, legal wage. But illegals are arguably in greater need of the jobs (since fewer kinds of jobs are even possible for them, and because they don’t have the same access to the social security safety net that citizens have access to). So, thinking purely in terms of the duty to help people when you can do so, it might even be argued that restaurants have an obligation to hire illegals.

It seems to me this is an interesting case where a company’s citizenship obligations might well conflict with its more general ethical obligations. And so it’s a nice illustration of why it’s wrong-headed to use the term “corporate citizenship” to cover the various kinds of moral responsibilities that a company may have.

22 comments so far

  1. Veebeep on

    “And if the term ‘corporate citizenship’ means anything at all, it ought to include a citizen-like duty to act in a law-abiding way.”

    We see so little “corporate citizenship” in other industries, it seems ludicrous to demand it of the restaurant industry, of all things, when it hires more immigrants than any other. Wall Street, banking, oil and gas, genetically modified foodstuffs, the Monsanto monopoly, corporate control of Congress, the U.S. government itself, etc., etc., etc. It’s so sickening to watch “business as usual” in this country! Now you come along suggesting that restaurants–of all of the businesses–raise their prices so that the already suffering middle and lower classes can’t even afford an occasional treat . . . after all they’ve already lost. This is one more reason we need the illegal immigrants as much as they need us! What about the child care, lawn care, painting, construction, housekeeping and cooking in homes that allows a couple to both work? I think we should respect at least minimum wage, of course, and leave additional pay, based on merit, as well as benefits, etc. up to individual employers, to be earned over time.

  2. Chris MacDonald on


    Did you read the entire blog entry?
    I did say “it might even be argued that restaurants have an obligation to hire illegals.” I presented both sides of the dilemma.

    But, as for your first point, most people don’t think that two wrongs make a right. The fact that you don’t always see good citizenship on the part of businesses in one industry doesn’t mean that it’s ok for companies in another industry to act badly, does it?


  3. […] Chris MacDonald, on his excellent Business Ethics Blog, has more sympathy for the pro-exploitation/ law-breaking side. He writes, […]

  4. Nicole Edge on

    I may be stepping in deep here, but I’m going to step anyway and ask some questions.

    I’m struggling with the statements regarding ethics and law – “ethically, there is a general and strong presumption in favour of following the law”. I get that as responsible members of a society, as a citizen of a country, it’s important to follow the law. But does that mean unquestioning duty without thinking about morals and values that the law is intended to uphold. What makes an illegal immigrant illegal? I’m not asking the question about failure to comply with the form of the law, but rather questioning the underlying reason, the substance, behind the laws. What is the law protecting from what moral risk? If I live in a country with hugely inefficient processes that cost significant dollars to handle immigration applications (and I do) does it make my country’s treatment of immigrants unethical? In effect is it compelling illegal status on people who desire to be ‘legal’? Are all businesses that hire illegal workers exploiting the people they hire? Do some provide an opportunity for people with few options? Are all legal citizens harmed by the hiring? Illegal workers contribute to the economy and given their status may actually consume fewer government, i.e. legal taxpayer funded, resources.

    on the other hand – What makes it ethical for government process and law to strip employment insurance, pension contributions and income tax from the employees (and yes, the very lowest levels of income earners do not get the same $ hit as higher income earners… but proportionately I question the fairness)? Is the crackdown on illegal hiring because of the unfair treatment of illegal workers – they get paid less,but they get paid cash under the table with no penalties like tax, EI, CPP(I’m Canadian so pardon the failure to translate to US terms)? Or is the crackdown a way to generate higher government revenues? What is the ethical driver, the moral incentive, behind this action? What happens to the economy when you strip out the illegal consumers – because a worker earning wages becomes a consumer buying and renting stuff? The direct job creation, presuming that legal citizens are linign up to take the jobs that illegal workers have filled, in the restaurant business may perhaps benefit the ‘real’ Americans referred to in Ethics Alarm blog, but indirectly how many American jobs are lost in the slimming down of the economy.

    No question, workers shouldn’t be mistreated and made to work in conditions that are terrible (recent Canadian e.g. is the reported conditions of workers in Golden, B.C.), but I don’t think this is a clear-cut yes/no issue.

  5. Chris MacDonald on


    The bit you quoted contains the answer to your question. I argued for “a general and strong presumption in favour of following the law”, not an absolute duty to obey blindly. A “presumption” just means that you should follow the law except in rare circumstances and with good reasons.

    I agree that it’s not a clear-cut issue. That’s why I provided arguments on both sides.


  6. Barbara Kimmel on

    There is another issue that you have not addressed here. It’s not unusual for illegal immigrants coming from certain parts of the world to bring communicable and highly contagious diseases with them. Tuberculosis is not uncommon. Just something to think about the next time you eat out, especially in a restaurant whose kitchen is staffed by illegal aliens.

    • Chris MacDonald on


      I’d want to see statistical evidence before I’d start to worry. And I’d want to see *illegal* immigrants compared to *legal* immigrants, and to working-class citizens, too.

      (BTW, how many people actually get TB from eating at a North American restaurant? I suspect the rate is too low to worry about.)


  7. John on

    Ethically speaking, is it possible for a person’s conduct to be ethical despite the illegality of such conduct? I thought that compliance with the law was an essential component of ethical behavior. Perhaps I misconstrued the point or points you were making regarding the hiring of persons who are by the laws of Canada not entitled to work. Kindly clarify please.

    • Chris MacDonald on


      Good question.

      There are a few circumstances in which obedience to the law may not be morally necessary. Most obviously, if you live in a lawless, corrupt place, or a place where the law is obviously immoral (think Hitler’s Germany) then obedience to the law might be morally unnecessary or even immoral.

      Likewise, under limited circumstances, even within a generally-just society civil disobedience might be justified (even if that means breaking the law) if the people doing it take responsibility for their actions, etc.


  8. Mark on


    I’d like to raise an issue that is a bit more general but also connected with the ethics of hiring “illegal migrants”. There is a pattern in the way we think about ethics cases that runs something like this: i) present a case that has obvious and clear ethical implications, ii) delve into the case further to find much more complex implications that we had not considered, iii) muse on the difficulties those implications throw up for decision-making or taking action, iv) end up with further questions and conclusions about the complexity of contemporary life/markets/socialsystems etc. The end result of this type of analysis seems to me to be total paralysis for doing anything.

    I see lots of problems with this appraoch ethics. We start with some clear ethical committments, in this case don’t employ people illegally and end up with ethics being put in the too hard basket and so we rationalise our way into the grey zone of justifying the status quo because it’s all very complex/too hard. I feel this appraoch to ethics becomes a process of stripping away moral clarity from people or, at the least moving them into a place where they can very easily justify doing nothing.

    Shouldn’t we also be discussing such cases as this in terms of what are the core ethical committments at stake here and how can ethics help us to act, speak up, inject these commitments into the public realm?

    • Chris MacDonald on


      Thanks for your comment, and I sympathize with the sentiment.

      But I’m not sure there’s anything regrettable about “stripping away moral clarity” where that clarity is not well-earned. A great many people are “clear” about a great many things, without justification. I’m not offering complexity for its own sake, but to show people that what they take as obvious may not be. Of course, achieving (justified) clarity is a very good thing. I hope to achieve that in some blog entries, but not all! If there is a clearly correct answer to the dilemma I’ve posed, I hope someone will offer it here in Comments.

      But further, in this particular case, I’m additionally trying to point out a problem with the notion of “Corporate Citizenship,” namely that it is often used as a name for all of a company’s moral obligations, even though in some cases the notion of citizenship implies a narrower set of duties than morality generally might imply.


  9. Lalitha on

    At the outset, let me congratulate you for bringing a real-life ethical dilemma into focus. Your write-up is clear, crisp and objective.
    I feel tempted to raise the following queries.
    Is the proposal prompted by the sense of fairness as a country steeped in equality and equal treatment of all citizens – to have the employers pay fair wages and provide healthy conditions of work and equitable terms of employment?
    Or is it because of a sense of populist jig to arouse feelings of enmity and racism against the illegal migrants and douse vitriol to appeal to the legal migrants and local population that it shares and extends solidarity and empathy to the neo-class of unemployed (un-employable?) to gain their patronage and brand appeal of President Obama?
    Or, is the law banning employment of the illegal aliens based on the principle of distributive justice and rights of all the stakeholders?
    Would this law stand the scrutiny of judicial scanner?
    Would restaurants defying or challenging this ban emerge as ethical organizations?
    · Since they choose to consider all their stakeholders, including the illegal aliens?
    · Since they choose to adopt the virtuous stance and abide by their primary objective to satisfy the hunger of as many as possible at affordable prices and with good quality and hygienic foods?
    · Since they choose to serve the triple bottom line – people, planet and profits?
    · Does good corporate citizenship mean only concern with the local population to the exclusion of the humanity as a whole and all the factors in the supply chain?

    • Chris MacDonald on


      Thanks for the thoughtful questions.

      I’ll only ask: what proposal are you referring to in your first question? I didn’t make any proposal, and (perhaps because I’m Canadian) am unaware of any specific American legislative proposal you might be referring to.


  10. Jeff Moriarty on

    Chris (I almost wrote ‘Christ’ — what does it mean?!),

    Great topic. I’m surprised that you haven’t mentioned — as you have before on this blog — Joe Heath’s article “When Sun-Tzu Met the Stakeholder.” (Were you tempting your commentators to bring it up?) Competition is key.

    Surely one reason restaurants hire illegal aliens is that they are cheaper (holding things constant such as cooking skills). Since the restaurant industry is competitive — maybe especially competitive — it would be asking a lot for an employer to not hire illegal aliens when it is likely that most other restaurants will continue to do so. Assuming I’m right about cost, customers will simply defect to the restaurant that hires illegal aliens, and the “virtuous” restaurant will go out of business.

    Some might reply that it shouldn’t be that hard to find talented “legals” to work in a restaurant in this economy, so it’s not too heavy a burden to bear. But I bet that’s wrong. The people running restaurants are probably no better or worse morally than your average person (and maybe better, judging by the frequent praise given to small business owners by politicians).

    What’s needed is a political solution. Either get serious about enforcing the law or change it. I suspect little progress can be made on this score by appealing to people’s patriotism, moral sense, etc. (assuming that morality requires, as it usually does, adherence to the law).

    That doesn’t address all your points but it’s perhaps a thought worth sharing.

    And no, I’m not submitting this in order to win your book. I’m doing it to avoid doing work. So there.

    • Chris MacDonald on


      Uh yeah, that’s it! I was hoping someone *other* than me would mention Heath! 😉

      But seriously: yes, I think this is a question for which thinking in terms of competition helps. As Joe points out (I think) there are questions where “everyone is doing it” is a lousy excuse, and other questions where it’s a pretty decent excuse. In the current example, the fact that your competition is keeping costs down by hiring illegals really ought to count as *some* justification (though not necessary a full one) for you doing so, too. Restaurants that pay for full-priced legal labour are at a competitive disadvantage, and may find themselves driven out of business. (The answer may of course be: tough, you deserve to go out of business!)


  11. Yes, the cost of everything would go up but our taxes would be cheaper because of the fact that we would not have to give these invaders food stamps, health care, cash benefits, etc, etc, etc.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      That’s pretty unlikely. My understanding is that economists are nearly unanimous that immigration is on the whole beneficial to the economy — perhaps even essential.

  12. […] #7. Ethics of Hiring Illegal Immigrants. This entry was bound to draw fire, given that it’s about an issue at the intersection of business and politics. […]

  13. Paul on

    Here’s an idea. Illegal immigrants cling to any chance of staying here, making money and just surviving. Some of them have lived here for decades, most of them would gladly become legal and pay taxes and other fees of being a citizen. Meanwhile we have 13.5trillion dollar deficit…
    There are ~15million illegal immigrants in the country, within the next 20-40 years they WILL get through the process of naturalization, after 20-40 years of working odd jobs and not paying any taxes or almost no taxes, they will join our legal ranks, so why just not let them join now. On top of taxes, and a huge help with supporting baby boomers that are retiring now, make all 15million immigrants pay 5000$ to become legal, which is not that much (75billion), but remember again, baby boomers need a younger population to carry the load.

  14. Sean Lance on

    If you feel have a “duty” to help those “poor” immigrants, help them purchase a ticket to their home countries, where they can legally work in ANY industry they choose. It’s a win-win, for all involved!

    • Chris MacDonald on


      That’s not only not a win-win, it’s not even a win. (And it’s not even clear that, as you claim, they can simply go home and work in any industry they choose).

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