On Feb. 16, anyone who wanted a lunchtime burrito from most branches of Anna’s Taqueria or a sandwich from McKenna’s Cafe in Dorchester was out of luck. Dinner at Shojo in Chinatown or Erbaluce in Bay Village was also off the table. Throughout the area — and the nation — restaurants closed in solidarity with striking workers on a Thursday declared “A Day Without Immigrants.”
The strikes and closures underscored the importance of immigrants in the restaurant industry. Nearly a quarter of all people employed by restaurants are foreign-born, and about 30 percent of businesses in the restaurant and hotel sector are immigrant-owned, census figures show.
Rumors of ICE raids in local kitchens have rippled throughout the community, and restaurateurs are taking to social media to discuss how they can protect their businesses and the workforce that makes them run. Nationally, celebrity chefs such as Jose Andres, Mario Batali, and Tom Colicchio are speaking out, opening the door for others in the industry to do the same in the face of President Trump’s hardline stance on immigration.
“It’s a horrible situation that certainly will impact our industry,” says Babak Bina, whose BiNA Family Hospitality group runs Lala Rokh, Bin 26 Enoteca, and jm Curley, all in Boston. An immigrant himself — his family fled Iran in the late 1970s — he has had thousands of employees in his 35 years in the business.
“I cannot remember the last time that a US-born applicant walked through the door looking for a dishwashing job.”
The restaurant industry already faces a labor shortage, and Massachusetts, with its low unemployment rate, is particularly affected. The Trump administration has vowed to lower the overall number of immigrants entering the country, starting most notably with a controversial ban on travel from seven countries.
If enacted, restrictions would reduce the number of people coming to the US by at least 30 million over the next half-century, according to the Pew Research Center.
“Everyone’s already complaining about not being able to find enough skilled line cooks and sous chefs and servers,” said Josh Lewin, co-owner of Juliet in Somerville, who estimates 30 percent of his restaurant’s roughly 20 employees are foreign-born. “Now we’re talking about impacting the key demographic that fills those lower-level positions, which would affect the real foundation of the workforce.”
Juliet — along with Bon Me, the Tip Tap Room, and a handful of others — is one of the Massachusetts restaurants that have joined a national Sanctuary Restaurants movement. Participants have a zero-tolerance policy for xenophobia; many display signs or decals stating their support.
Unlike sanctuary cities, this does not mean a refusal to enforce federal immigration laws. The status is not legal but symbolic, Lewin acknowledges. “We want our people to know that our attitudes haven’t changed even if they feel like some of the American attitudes around them have changed,” he says. “We appreciate them for who they are: hard-working, productive members not only of our restaurant, but of our community.”
Many local restaurants have held fund-raisers to support nonprofits on the forefront of the fight. On Inauguration Day, Mei Mei food truck and restaurant ran an event called “Need a Drink?” in which proceeds from alcohol sales went to organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood. Chef-owner Irene Li is the daughter of a Chinese immigrant who moved to the US after fleeing the Cultural Revolution.
And earlier this month, more than two dozen Massachusetts coffee shops and cafes participated in a weekend-long national fund-raiser for the ACLU.
The concern isn’t limited to the kitchen. Restaurateurs also warn that if farms, orchards, and dairies across the country are targeted for arrest and deportation activities, it could mean labor shortages and rising food prices.
“I grew up in Northern California, and I can tell you straight-up that white people don’t pick grapes unless it’s a charming part of their honeymoon,” said Tiffani Faison, chef-owner of Sweet Cheeks and Tiger Mama in Boston. “So it’s not just who works in the restaurant industry. It’s who’s picking grapes in Napa and strawberries in Southern California and apples in Sebastopol.”
Nationwide, restaurants employ nearly 2.3 million foreign-born workers, or 8.4 percent of immigrants in the US labor force. The Massachusetts Restaurant Association estimates the state has 15,250 restaurants collectively employing 330,000 people. That’s one of every 10 jobs, not including indirect employment such as food suppliers.
“What restaurants have been looking for is no different than what we were looking for from President Obama and previous presidents: a solid immigration policy,” said MRA president Bob Luz — one that “gives direction and a clear avenue for hard-working folks who want to come to the US and start a new and different life.”
“We already have an employee shortage,” he added. If legal avenues for immigrants to enter the country begin to close, “that’s going to suffocate us more and more.”