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Citizen Chef

Photo by Jessica Heigh.
Photo by Jessica Heigh.

Lorenzo Santillan, 23, arrives at Phoenix College’s culinary café wearing black anti-slip shoes, black Dickies pants and a white chef’s coat. He’s ready to start work preparing food for a lunch-rush shift at Phoenix College. He doesn’t get paid for his work, but rather volunteers his time. “It’s my passion,” he says.

Santillan wants to become a chef and open an all-organic, Michoacán-inspired restaurant. Santillan was illegally brought from Michoacán, Mexico, when he was nine months old. He hasn’t forgotten his roots, spending his free time learning as much about Michoacán dishes as possible. His grandfather visits from Mexico occasionally and teaches him to cook. One of Santillan’s favorite dishes to prepare is carnitas, a type of roasted pork in Mexican cuisine.

As of now, Santillan doesn’t have a job that pays. When not volunteering his time at Phoenix College, he tends to the small garden he recently started at home, where he has planted tomatoes, cilantro and mint leaves.

In order to work, or even volunteer, in any type of food-related job in Arizona, one has to be certified to handle and prepare food. There are four locations across the Valley to obtain a food-handler’s card, and a few private companies and non-profit organizations that offer online testing, though those tests still require final certification through the Maricopa County Department of Public Health. As of now, the only requirement to obtain a card is to pass one of these tests on safety procedures.

However, should Senate Bill 1490 pass through the Arizona State Legislature and become law with Gov. Jan Brewer's signature, food-handler applicants will be required to show proof of U.S. citizenship or legal residency.

“What they’re saying is that I’m so illegal that I can’t even touch food,” says Santillan, who has both an associate's degree in culinary arts and a food handler’s card.

Sen. Ron Gould, the sponsor of SB 1490 and a Republican from Lake Havasu, says that’s his goal.

“My goal is to displace all illegals from [the food industry],” Gould says.

Sherry Gillespie, government relations manager for the Arizona Restaurant Association, says she understands Gould’s point of view, but that the law could stop organizations like hers from providing resources to people who wish to work in the food industry. The new law would make online tests useless.

“They are trying to hide this in the immigration debate,” she says.

Gillespie says that Arizona is already cracking down on hiring undocumented people. E-verify is a federal government program that is being used in Arizona to verify potential workers’ documents, such as a social security card, and determine if they are the correct owners of the documents.

Gould says his concern isn't with organizations such as Gillespie’s, but rather with his constituents, who are worried about undocumented people taking jobs that could be legally attained.

“There are loopholes that people get through,” Gould says. “And this [bill] will take care of those loopholes.”

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