Florida Restaurant Chain Faces Challenges Amid New Immigration Law

Richard Gonzmart, the fourth-generation owner of the historical Columbia Restaurant chain based in Tampa, is urging politicians to take a more nuanced stance on immigration. Recently, Gonzmart faced significant hurdles when federal immigration authorities discovered noncompliant work documents for 19 of his employees, forcing their termination.

Historical Overview

The restaurant chain has been an integral part of Tampa’s heritage since its establishment in 1905 by Gonzmart’s great-grandfather, Casimiro Hernandez Sr. The company’s ethos centers around treating employees as part of its extended family, offering above-average wages, and additional benefits. Even during challenging times like the COVID-19 pandemic, the company stood by its workers, providing continuous wages, medical insurance, and meals.

The Current Situation

Federal officials from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) declined to comment on Gonzmart’s situation. However, as negotiations continue, the incident illuminates the complications businesses face, particularly with the introduction of Florida’s new immigration law. This legislation adds another layer to the already complex federal rules, intensifying worker shortages in an already tight labor market. A few key points to highlight:

  • Of the 19 terminated employees, seven had been with the company for three decades.
  • Gonzmart’s restaurant chain has historically treated employees as family, often providing benefits beyond what’s expected in the industry.
  • During the pandemic, despite challenges, the company provided wages, 401(k) plans, and meals for its employees.
  • Gonzmart strongly advocates for enhanced protections for long-term migrants.

New Immigration Law Impacts

Gonzmart voiced concerns over the current state immigration law, which poses challenges for businesses, especially in sectors like hospitality and agriculture. Key provisions of the law include:

  • Businesses with more than 25 employees are mandated to verify work eligibility through the E-Verify platform.
  • Transporting individuals who entered the country illegally into Florida is now classified as a felony.
  • Hospitals accepting Medicaid must ascertain a patient’s immigration status.

While the law primarily targets agriculture and construction industries, its implications have rippled through Florida’s restaurant and lodging sectors, leading to significant repercussions. Many of Gonzmart’s employees were recruited during times when there wasn’t a strict mandate on verifying work eligibility documentation. With the new law in place, various workers did not renew their papers due to fears of deportation.

Broader Implications

As Gov. Ron DeSantis intensifies his focus on illegal immigration, federal attention has shifted towards influential figures like Gonzmart and his revamped restaurant chain, the 1905 Family of Restaurants. The I-9 form, crucial for determining an employee’s identity and work eligibility, has come under increased scrutiny. In a bid to navigate the challenging landscape, over 30 Florida public officials recently reached out to President Joe Biden, urging the expansion of immigration protections for migrants without permanent immigration pathways or at risk of deportation.


The unfolding scenario in Florida underscores the intricate balance between enforcing immigration policies and ensuring businesses can function effectively. For longstanding establishments like Gonzmart’s Columbia Restaurant chain, the hope lies in a more comprehensive and compassionate approach to immigration, emphasizing human stories over strict legalities.

As Florida grapples with these challenges, the hope remains that the voices of people like Gonzmart will be heeded, leading to a more inclusive and balanced approach to immigration in the years to come.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *