Restaurant workers and owners across the country are hoping Thursday’s “A Day Without Immigrants” walkout will make a powerful statement — that foreign laborers have a serious sway when it comes to economic power in America.
Amalita Silva, owner of El Burrito Mercado in St. Paul, Minn., said her employees asked her to join the grassroots campaign of immigrants to stay home, close their businesses and refrain from dining out and making purchases on Feb. 16.
She said she spoke with her management team, and they decided unanimously to join the boycott.
“The market and restaurant are closing, which equals about 100 employees,” said Silva, whose Mexican-immigrant grandparents opened El Burrito Mercado in 1979. She said she’d lose money — she wouldn’t say how much — but she insisted that was not the point.
“It’s worth it to support our employees,” she said. “Our grandparents were immigrants. The boycott shows the hit the economy will take if every business does this.… Immigrants helped make this country what it is. They help make it successful.”
And it isn’t just small mom-and-pop restaurants that are closing their doors on Thursday.
"If members of my team decide to protest I will support their decision,” "Top Chef" judge Tom Colicchio wrote on Twitter.
If members of my team decide to protest I will support their decision. https://t.co/v3mjoU7p85— Tom Colicchio (@tomcolicchio) February 15, 2017
On Wednesday, chef Rick Bayless, known for his upscale Mexican cuisine, announced he would be closing four restaurants Thursday as his workers participate in the walkout in Chicago.
"For three decades, we’ve been a place that has welcomed, respected and promoted our immigrant staff, friends and restaurant family," Bayless wrote in a statement.
Two of his restaurants, Cruz Blanca and Leña Brava, will remain open for employees who still want to work but the chef says he plans to donate "10 percent of gross revenue" to the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
In the nation's capital, the owner of the local cafe chain Busboys and Poets' is allowing any of his 600 employees to use a vacation day to join the walkout.
Also signing on is José Andrés, the D.C.-based chef credited with bringing the small-plates dining concept to America — and well-known for his ongoing feud with President Trump.
Andrés pulled out of plans to open a restaurant inside the Trump Hotel D.C. after Trump made disparaging remarks about immigrants during the 2016 campaign. Trump then slapped Andrés with a $10 million lawsuit, and Andrés hit back with an $8 million suit of his own.
Andrés, who owns restaurants in Washington, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, South Beach, Dorado and Philadelphia, announced he’d be closing a number of his eateries Thursday — including Oyamel Cocina Mexicana and Zaytinya in downtown Washington and all of his Jaleo locations in Las Vegas.
But the boycott has several detractors.
“By encouraging walk-outs, these organizations disrupt the workplaces of hard-working Americans who are trying to provide for their families,” Leslie Shedd, vice president of the National Restaurant Association, wrote in a statement to Fox News.
Restaurants employ nearly 2.3 million foreign-born workers, representing more than 8 percent of the 28.1 million foreign-born workers in the U.S labor force, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey. And more than 23 percent of restaurant employees are foreign-born, versus 19 percent for the overall economy, according to the National Restaurant Association News & Research.
Forty-five percent of restaurant chefs are foreign-born, as are 24 percent of restaurant managers. Immigrants are more likely to be business owners in the restaurant industry, according to the National Restaurant Association News & Research.
Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) said he wasn’t sure the walkout would have much of long-term effect.
The enforcement of immigration policies “is only going to affect people who work here illegally,” he said. “There are plenty of legal workers who would be willing [to] do these jobs with higher wages and better working conditions.”
But there appeared to be a groundswell of protest as Thursday approached. In Wisconsin on Monday, thousands took part in a "Day Without Latinos." And Movimiento Cosecha, a national movement seeking protection for undocumented immigrants, is planning a nationwide boycott called “A Day Without Immigrants” on May 1, urging immigrants to show their impact on the U.S. workforce and economy by taking the day off from work and school.
In cities throughout the country, including New York, Minneapolis, Detroit, Boston, Oakland, Chicago and Ann Arbor, Mich., restaurants are declaring themselves to be part of a grassroots “Sanctuary Restaurants Movement.”
They are posting signs on their windows encouraging immigrants to know their rights and advising them how to ask federal immigration agents for proper paperwork in a raid. They’re also posting a text line for customers and employees who want to report incidents of harassment.
Alfredo Solis, owner of Mezcalero and El Sol restaurants in Washington, D.C., said his restaurants would be closed on Thursday. He said about 30 employees would walk out and he’d lose between $14,000 and $15,000 for the day. Still, he hopes it will illuminate the issues surrounding the immigration debate.
“I’d like to see President Trump to back down a bit on immigration,” he said. “Of course there are some bad people in this country, but I hope he changes his policy and that he sees that not everyone who comes to the country wants to destroy it.
He continued, “I came here and I do something good for the country. I pay taxes. Everyone does their part here."
Marilou Halvorsen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, said she held a call on Monday with some members of her organization to talk about the Thursday boycott. She said most of the restaurant owners understood why employees might want to participate.
“By and large,” she said, “members support their employees. While they certainly hope that their staff would give them a heads-up if they are not coming in, they do understand their need, and it’s their right of freedom of speech....
“[The protesters] want people to know how important immigrants are to the hospitality industry. They want to send that message.”