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Billionaire restaurateur: Trump doesn't know what his immigration policy should be yet

Tilman Fertitta stars in CNBC's "Billion Dollar Buyer"
Bob Levey | CNBC
Tilman Fertitta stars in CNBC's "Billion Dollar Buyer"

If keeping up with the announcements coming from the Oval Office about international visitors and refugees feels dizzying, that may be because President Donald Trump is still working out the details of his immigration policy.

"I don't know that Trump totally understands his immigration policy yet," says Tilman Fertitta, the self-made billionaire and star of CNBC's "Billion Dollar Buyer." "I think they are trying to weed through it."

Fertitta, whose food-and-casino empire is worth about $3 billion, got his start peeling shrimp in the back of his father's restaurant in Galveston, Texas. He now employees 60,000 people.

President Donald Trump campaigned and was elected on a promise to crack down on illegal immigrants. He pledged to build a wall to stop Mexicans from crossing the border and, in his first month in office, he attempted to implement a travel ban targeting seven largely Muslim countries.

He has since signed a second, revised order that targets six of the same nations.

Trump's aggressive moves on immigration have resulted in national protests and strikes, culminating in a "Day Without Immigrants" in February when businesses shuttered to demonstrate the importance of immigrants to the country's workforce.

Also in February, Trump's administration softened its stance by announcing it would not attempt to deport "dreamers," or those children who entered the U.S. illegally (though some uncertainty and fears remain).

Fertitta agrees with that choice. "I will be honest with you, I don't think we should break up families and send people back at this point unless somebody is a criminal," he tells CNBC.

The CEO sees Trump's more measured policies as representative of the President's real preferences. To Fertitta, Trump's comments about immigration during the campaign and in his first days in office were designed to satisfy his core voters.

"I don't know that they have been blundered," says Fertitta. "I think that he spoke more rhetoric to fire up his base. But Donald Trump is a smart man and he is not going to just start deporting people. He doesn't want to deport illegal people. I think he makes that clear when you read and really listen to his speeches and what he says.

"I just think he thinks there should be a process to make everyone an American citizen."

"Donald Trump is a smart man and he is not going to just start deporting people." -Tilman Fertitta, CEO of Landry's

As a restaurant chain owner, Fertitta is uniquely situated to comment on immigration policy.

"Restaurants embody the American Dream like no other industry," maintains the industry advocacy group, the National Restaurant Association. "They're often the employer of choice for immigrants who come to America in search of new opportunities. The relationship benefits both sides: Immigrants gain valuable job experience and immediate access to opportunities, and restaurateurs can fill positions at every level."

And Fertitta would like to see a path to citizenship: "Anybody over here who is a law-abiding citizen who is paying taxes, we should find a way to keep them over here."

The CEO also believes that the current system is broken and needs to be fixed.

One of his restaurants was raided by immigration officials and employees who were found to be undocumented had to have their employment terminated. But, Fertitta says, those employees either got jobs at local competitors or started collecting food stamps.

"Even though they are illegal and they are not allowed to work, they are allowed to collect food stamps in the United States government," Fertitta says. "Now, isn't that stupid? You can't work for this guy and pay taxes, but you can go and get food stamps. Now you are going to tell me we are not screwed up? I mean, that's unbelievable."

See also:

12 hard-earned life lessons from a self-made billionaire who started with a $6,000 loan

Self-made billionaire Tilman Fertitta shares his best advice for 20-somethings