The national debate over immigration policy could be coming to a diner near you.
From down-home delis to upscale bistros, dozens of restaurants nationwide are seeking “sanctuary” status, a designation owners hope will help protect employees in an immigrant-heavy industry and tone down fiery rhetoric sparked by the presidential campaign. First inspired by churches, the label is something cities and other public entities have sought to offer local protections to immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, whether it’s barring police from asking citizens about immigration status or refusing to cooperate with federal agents.
Roughly 80 restaurants are participating, in locations including New York, Minneapolis, Detroit, Boston, Oakland, California, and Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The restaurants agree to anti-discrimination policies, put up signs on windows that pronounce their sanctuary status and receive know-your-rights training, such as webinars on how to ask federal immigration agents for proper paperwork if there’s an attempted raid. Some will also offer a text line for customers or employees to report any incidents of harassment.
At Detroit’s Russell Street Deli, customers walking in the front door of the racially diverse restaurant see a sign that reads: “SANCTUARY RESTAURANT, a place at the table for everyone.”
“I have this one little place where I get to decide how people treat each other,” said owner Ben Hall, who is biracial and was moved to sign up after a few customers’ racially tinged comments. “If someone has the need to insult someone … then they don’t get to participate. I’ve told them, ‘There’s another diner next door.'”
The movement is loosely defined and largely symbolic. Restaurants are private businesses subject to workplace law and regulations, and a sanctuary designation will do nothing to prevent federal agents from arresting any workers in the country illegally.
But organizers of the sanctuary restaurants movement say it’s a response to the uncertainty surrounding President Donald Trump, whose campaign cornerstones included stepped-up deportations and a wall along the Mexican border, though he has not given details on how either would be carried out. They argue the restaurant industry is more vulnerable than others, given its heavy reliance on immigrant labor.
Not all restaurant industry groups agree with the tactic.
The National Restaurant Association, which represents roughly 500,000 businesses, is instead pushing for an immigration overhaul, including an updated verification system that confirms employees’ eligibility to work in the country legally. Association Senior Vice President Steve Danon said the organization “is looking forward to working with the Trump administration” on ways to make verification “easier and more cost-efficient.”
Roughly 12 million workers are in the restaurant industry and immigrants make up the majority, including up to 70 percent in big cities such as New York and Chicago. An estimated 1.3 million in the industry are immigrants living in the country without legal permission, according to Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, which launched the campaign and works to improve industry conditions.
They pitched the program with an economic argument, saying restaurants need a “robust pool of workers.” In a recent letter, they appealed to Trump as a businessman and urged him to “speak out to alleviate the fear of deportation and other harassment.”
“This is not about a restaurant harboring people in a closet. This is about creating a safe space,” said Saru Jayaraman, a co-founder of ROC United. “Employers have a responsibility to protect their workers.”
In Chicago, the general manager at the rustic French restaurant Campagne Bistro said he applied to become a sanctuary restaurant because he wanted his employees to feel supported. Half the employees at his neighborhood bistro are immigrants, including from Romania, Ecuador and Mexico.
“Restaurants are part of embracing other cultures,” said Todd Feinberg. “We are all an immigrant culture. The idea that we might not accept that disturbs me a bit.”
At Brightwok Kitchen, an Asian inspired build-a-bowl restaurant in downtown Chicago, owner Jeremy Klaben said he sought sanctuary status because he wants employees and customers to feel included. The restaurant draws a busy lunchtime crowd of college students, corporate employees and tourists.
Employee Iris Quijano, 22, said it’s an extension of how she and colleagues feel. The Chicago native who has family in Mexico was drawn to the restaurant after she graduated from college.
“In terms of all the negativity and the hatred we have in social media and in general … it’ll be good to be known as a sanctuary restaurant,” she said. “All our co-workers stand for the same things. It’s really important for others to feel the same vibes in the restaurant and have a good meal without having to worry about anything negative.”