BoatHouse Canton, a waterfront seafood restaurant serving up “the bounty of the Chesapeake Bay,” has started a fundraiser for over 30 staff members who, fearing deportation, not only left their workplace but in some cases also fled from their homes. Although BoatHouse is in compliance with I-9 regulations, many of the back of house staff were afraid of what might happen if they didn’t have all their paperwork in order. Even those who are documented were afraid of being detained or deported, as has happened in some instances across the country. And that could be a more frequent occurrence at restaurants around the country.
Unless you’ve got ties to the country’s Latinx community, the recent uptick in detentions and deportations of undocumented immigrants might seem like nothing more than an abstract issue. If you’re a U.S. citizen and you aren’t a person of color, you probably aren’t worried about keeping your papers on you at all times, just in case you run into an ICE agent. You might not know anyone who didn’t show up for work or was afraid to make a court appearance, or suddenly hasn’t been at church. After all, Hispanic workers often are employed in invisible professions like picking crops, processing food, or washing dishes. But you would notice if that invisible infrastructure vanished. If, say, your favorite restaurant suddenly loses half its staff.
BoatHouse owner Gene Singleton said in an open letter to BoatHouse customers, “Based on our Government’s current practice of targeting the Hispanic Community, properly documented and potentially less than properly documented are all fearful of being separated from their families, many with small children. Many went home to pack up and leave. This was a sad, emotional, tragic event.” Singleton explained that a portion of proceeds from the restaurant, as well as dedicated donations, will be put into a “Heart of House Fund” to “assist our displaced families with their transition.”
Since Trump came into office, ICE has been expanded along with detention centers. Raids are more frequent, and the administration has threatened to cut federal funding for sanctuary cities that are protective of their immigrant communities. It’s not just restauranteurs and their employees who are nervous — domestic violence victims, families with small children, young people protected by the Dream Act, and immigrants whose closed case files have been reopened are just a few of the groups on high alert in case they are targeted by la migra. Anyone with an undocumented friend or family member has reason to worry.
The incident at BoatHouse, though, illuminates how immigration issues aren’t as simple as legal or illegal. This isn’t an entirely new problem, either. Ten years ago, Anthony Bourdain told the Houston Press, “The bald fact is that the entire restaurant industry in America would close down overnight, would never recover, if current immigration laws were enforced quickly and thoroughly across the board.” But that’s exactly what Trump has promised he’ll do. That will not only bad for businesses like the BoatHouse, it will hurts the communities of which those immigrants are a part. Singleton described his staff members as “some of the best [people] I have ever come to know.”