Alabama delicatessen owner burned by immigration comments

Tanya Ott Oct 27, 2011

Alabama delicatessen owner burned by immigration comments

Tanya Ott Oct 27, 2011

Bob Moon: You may have heard by now about the new immigration law in Alabama. It’s one of the toughest — or, critics complain, vaguest — in the country. Among other things, police can demand documentation from anyone they “reasonably expect” is in the U.S. illegally.

In the last week, one businessman has found himself at the center of the controversy, in a spotlight he never anticipated — or wanted. From WBHM in Birmingham, Tanya Ott reports.

Tanya Ott: Steve Dubrinsky moves swiftly between the meat cutter and the hot cooktop at Max’s Delicatessen.

Steve Dubrinsky: He’s making mazto balls. What’re you cooking here, Pedro?

Pedro: Potatoes for the vegetable beef soup.

Dubrinsky opened his New York-style deli in a Birmingham suburb three years ago. He named it after his dad and poured his heart into the place.

Dubrinsky: Seven days a week, 15-hour days at a minimum, for three years. I think we’re closed maybe one or two days a year and that’s it.

But earlier this month, Dubrinsky saw his dream unraveling. He was quoted in the Birmingham News saying he was worried he’d lose workers because of the new law. About half of his 19 employees are immigrants. Many have undocumented relatives in Alabama and they want to move out of state. Other employees say they just don’t feel comfortable — or safe — living in Alabama. The article led to a tangle with Matt Murphy, a libertarian talk show host on a Birmingham radio station.

Matt Murphy: You claim that you’re comfortable that all of your employees are legal and I don’t believe you. In fact, I think you know some of your employees are illegal.

For the record, Dubrinsky admitted to me that he has — in the past — employed undocumented workers. But he claims he checked the paperwork for all his current employees and he believes they’re all here legally.

Still, callers to the radio show demanded a boycott of the restaurant. Max’s Deli became the talk of anti-immigrant websites. And within a day, the Internet was full of newly-posted negative reviews for the restaurant.

Dubrinksy: The very next day, a couple empty tables at noon and the thoughts that run through your head, what the heck did I do?

Dubrinsky’s email account was flooded with messages from around the country.

Dubrinsky: One of the emails I got was from a lady who said ‘I hope your un-American restaurant closes.’ I had to have a sense of humor, otherwise I’d be crying. I said “I’ll close tonight” and she wrote back “Idiot! I mean forever.”

The incident shows just how risky it can be for a business owner to take a stand on an issue. Stephen Craft is dean of the business school at the University of Montevallo, near Birmingham.

Stephen Craft: You hate to drive the voice of the small business out of public policy; however, for better or worse, it is predictable that there’s going to be some repercussions when you weigh in on a controversial subject.

And the roller coaster ride continues. Dubrinsky says he’s received hundreds of emails of support and 300 new Facebook friends for Max’s Delicatessen. Still, he’s weary from the experience and says he’s not sure he wants to stay in the restaurant business.

In Birmingham, Ala., I’m Tanya Ott for Marketplace.

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