Bartenders serve up drinks, customs checks

Policy at 2 halls called unfair to immigrants

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / April 24, 2008

All the 33-year-old illegal immigrant wanted was a beer. After nearly a decade in this country, the Irish national knew to steer clear of police and federal agents. But he was stunned this month when a bartender at the Orpheum refused to serve him because his passport lacked a US Customs stamp.

The man grabbed his passport and fled, abandoning a $60 orchestra seat at a Ray Davies concert and igniting a debate over a new policy that one of the country's largest concessionaires imposed at the Orpheum and at another popular live-music venue in Boston.

Officials at the Boston Culinary Group said they started checking for customs stamps last year to ensure that passports are authentic, not to enforce immigration law.

But critics of the policy say that the stamp is no guarantee of validity and that checking for it is frightening to immigrants.

"I said, 'Who are you, immigration?" the man, a construction worker who spoke on a condition of anonymity because he fears deportation, said he asked the bartender. "It was a shock."

Daniel F. Pokaski - chairman of Boston's Licensing Board, which issues alcohol licenses - said he had never heard of local bartenders checking for a customs stamp before serving a customer.

"I wouldn't recommend it if, in fact, it does have the side effect of denying illegal immigrants the right to have a cocktail," he said. "I just think you're really taking a class of people, and based on the lack of a customs stamp you're denying them service. I'm not sure if I'm comfortable with that."

State law lists a foreign passport from a US-recognized country as an acceptable identification to verify that someone is 21, the legal age to drink. Other acceptable identification include a Massachusetts driver's license, a military card, a US passport, or a state liquor card, which shows someone is of legal age to drink.

The law does not mention a customs stamp, which shows the date of admission to the United States. But state and city officials say the company can legally increase its requirements, as long as it does not discriminate based on race, ethnicity, or other protected classes.

Boston Culinary Group launched the passport policy in September at Orpheum and the Bank of America Pavilion because bartenders were confused by the array of foreign passports, said company president Joseph Armstrong. Company officials decided that the customs stamp was a common denominator that could verify that the passports are authentic.

He said the company instituted the policy only at the two Boston halls because questions arose about passports and because alcohol is in high demand at concerts, making enforcement a major issue. The company serves venues across the country, from the Tsongas Arena in Lowell to Dolphins Stadium in Miami.

Armstrong said the company takes a strict approach because bartenders are under intense pressure to avoid selling alcohol to minors. City and state officials routinely conduct undercover stings, and companies face stiff penalties for serving minors, including criminal charges, fines, and the loss of liquor licenses.

He said the company cards everyone at the 2,500-seat Orpheum and 5,000-seat Pavilion and has had no violations at either place.

"We're in no way trying to be another policing arm for the immigration department," Armstrong said. "We're just trying to protect ourselves and the people we work for in terms of making sure that we get proper identification from people."

But lawyers and advocates say the company could be unfairly denying service to all immigrants.

In general, travelers to the United States arriving by air must have a customs stamp in their passport, said Ted Woo, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection. But Canadians and Mexicans don't necessarily have the stamps, because passports won't be required for them to enter the country by land until 2009. Neither do legal immigrants who renewed their passports in the United States.

The policy at the two Boston venues is likely to have the most impact on illegal immigrants, who are ineligible for a driver's license or other government identification. The Pew Hispanic Center estimated in 2006 that 150,000 to 250,000 immigrants in Massachusetts are here illegally.

Lawyers and advocates said the company should simply use the passport to determine the customer's age.

"Asking a bartender to go above and beyond and check the federal government's stamp of approval and make a determination of whether it's valid is ridiculous," said Anjali Waikar, a lawyer with the ACLU of Massachusetts.

"I think they should focus their efforts more on determining how old people are," said Joanna Connolly, president of the Irish Immigration Center's board, who looked into the episode at the Orpheum after the center received a complaint from an immigrant.

"They shouldn't put their employees in the business of determining immigration status," said Connolly, a former assistant state attorney general. "That isn't their goal, but it's the effect."

But Armstrong defended the policy. The Massachusetts Restaurant Association and Live Nation, the Los Angeles-based company that manages the Orpheum and the Bank of America Pavilion, also said they support the company's right to set its own rules.

"If it has an occasional effect of someone who doesn't have the kind of identification that adheres to [the company's] standards is denied a beer then, well, so be it," said John Vlautin, spokesman for concert promoter Live Nation.

For the 33-year-old illegal immigrant from Ireland, the episode at the Orpheum was another reminder of his precarious condition in the United States and its contradictions. He breaks the law by driving without a license and working illegally in construction. Yet he pays taxes every year with an identification number issued by the Internal Revenue Service.

Now he says his concert-going days are over. "They can snub me; I can snub them," he said.

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at

The Boston Culinary Group is now checking for US customs stamps if patrons present passports as ID.

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