At Kabob Bazaar, the hands that saute eggplant and skewer cubes of lamb belong to immigrants from Latin America, the Philippines and owner Bruce Sarvghadi’s native Iran. But Sarvghadi, a naturalized U.S. citizen, is finding his Arlington restaurant short-staffed this week: His brother, Davood Sarvghadi, who works in the restaurant, had gone home to visit family in Iran. Due to return Sunday, he was prevented from boarding his flight back to Washington, and is stuck in Mashhad, Iran, with no idea when he will be able to return.
“I’m just worried the way that things are going in this nation, with Mr. Trump in power,” said Sarvghadi. “I’m hoping that the people will speak out and he will change his mind about his hard policy. Of course, we all want a safe place to live in, but I think the way that he’s going is a little too extreme.”
Whether its workers are stranded overseas or threatened with deportation, the restaurant industry is caught in the crosshairs of the Trump administration’s hard-line approach to immigration. Since being sworn into office, President Trump has signed executive orders not only temporarily banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, in the name of national security, but also threatening to withhold federal funds from so-called sanctuary cities, which do not cooperate with federal officials in detaining people based on their immigration status.
The orders could have serious impact on an industry that employs about 1.8 million foreign-born workers, or 7.1 percent of the 25 million foreign-born workers in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Pew Research Center estimates that 10 percent of the workforce in “eating and drinking places,” or 1.1 million employees, were unauthorized to work in 2014.
José Andrés, the James Beard Award-winning chef with more than 20 restaurants across the country, is one of the few restaurateurs willing to talk about undocumented workers. Immigration is a subject close to his heart: He was once an immigrant himself, a struggling Spanish-born chef who arrived in New York in 1990 with only $50 in his pocket and a set of knives. But in 2013, Andrés officially became a U.S. citizen, and now he’s embroiled in very public lawsuits with a sitting president over the chef’s decision to pull out of the Trump International Hotel in the Old Post Office building in Washington in protest of Trump’s derogatory campaign-trail comments about Mexican immigrants.
Andrés wants to navigate a middle path between the polar extremes he sees in America. He wants conservatives to see that undocumented immigrants, while not authorized to work here, still pay millions of dollars in taxes — at least until the government learns that their taxpayer IDs are fraudulent. And he wants liberals to see that there are other remedies besides citizenship.
“Get them work visas,” says Andrés, whose ThinkFoodGroup company uses E-Verify to determine workers’ eligibility. “Give them a path to citizenship.”
A work visa plan, in fact, might prevent a restaurant industry from rapidly shrinking if the Trump administration makes good on plans to start deporting illegal immigrants. An industry that already struggles to find qualified labor cannot afford to lose nearly 9 percent of its workforce, Andrés says. Besides, he adds, most of these workers are not the bad actors that conservatives make them out to be.
“We cannot just [make] a law that implies everybody is bad,” Andrés says.
Since the president signed the orders, Ayuda, which provides legal and social services to immigrants in the Washington area, has seen an increase in calls. “Our clients are very scared,” says Executive Director Paula Fitzgerald. “People are afraid to come forward. As their advisers, it’s becoming more difficult to tell them what to expect.”
If groups like Ayuda are concerned about the welfare of their clients, they’re also concerned about their funding. Fitzgerald says that 50 percent of Ayuda’s $4 million annual budget comes from federal dollars, some of which is passed through the District government. If the president successfully withholds funds from sanctuary cities — some say such an order is unconstitutional — it could impact Ayuda’s work to help those threatened with deportation.
For its part, the National Restaurant Association is “currently reviewing the executive orders to determine their impact,” emails Leslie Shedd, vice president of communications for the association.
Anthony Bourdain — author, globe-trotter, “Parts Unknown” host and former chef — has long been a public voice for the immigrants who do much of the prepping, cooking and cleaning at American restaurants, even at some of the priciest ones. “If Mr. Trump deports 11 million people or whatever he’s talking about right now,” Bourdain said to SiriusXM in 2015 when Trump was a presidential candidate, “every restaurant in America would shut down.”
But when contacted on Monday by email, Bourdain was in no mood to ponder the effect of the president’s orders on one industry. The stakes now are much higher, he indicated.
“In my view we have arrived at the most shameful period of American politics in my lifetime,” Bourdain wrote. “This is no longer about the hospitality industry. It’s about the very nature of America and what kind of country we want to be. The Statue of Liberty, in whose shadow I’ve lived most of my life, seems like a bitterly ironic joke. We don’t deserve it and should probably return it to France so it won’t remind us of what we once were and what we have become.”
Some in the restaurant industry are focusing specifically on solutions for unauthorized workers who may face deportation. Dozens of proprietors across the country have signed up to be a “sanctuary restaurant,” where owners will “not allow any harassment of any individual based on immigrant/refugee status, race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation to occur in their restaurant.” Sanctuary Restaurants is a joint project of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and Presente.org, a pair of nonprofits that advocate for restaurant workers and Latinos, respectively.
The project was developed even before the president signed his orders on immigration and international travel. Sanctuary Restaurants was originally designed to help protect workers who were feeling threatened and harassed. But now that sanctuary cities have become news, Sheila Maddali, co-director of the Tipper Worker Resource Center at ROC United, makes it clear that Sanctuary Restaurants offer “no legal protections” for illegal workers. The restaurants that have joined will comply with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, as all private businesses must.
“We just wanted everyone to know that we’re supportive, and we care about everyone and we’re welcoming to all people,” said Dakota Defever, beverage director for the Minor Threat restaurant group, which owns Sovereign, a sanctuary restaurant in conservative-leaning Plainfield, Ill. It’s about “being open and welcoming to [immigrant employees] and standing up, and trying to make sure we can keep good people in the business.”
The president has not backed down from his executive orders in the face of widespread protests and condemnation. “You don’t know when the next [terrorist] attack’s coming,” press secretary Sean Spicer said at a Monday briefing. “And so the best you can do is to get ahead of it.”
Just the threat of a travel ban has made it difficult for Arwa Aljarmozi, 42, and her husband, Abdul, to focus on House of Mandi, the restaurant they own in Arlington.
Originally from Yemen, the Aljarmozis are naturalized American citizens — but they fear for their family members. A Yemeni niece with a student visa who was due to return to Virginia before the end of the month is stuck in Dubai. And she worries that her five children will never again see their grandparents, who live in Yemen. It has taken a toll on her 6-year-old daughter, Noora, who became hysterical when she heard her father was going on a business trip to Florida, because she is too young to understand the complexity of the order.
“She was tearing up and saying, ‘Mr. Trump won’t let me see Daddy again,’ ” said Aljarmozi, who explained to her daughter that Florida is within the United States. “We do keep Mr. Trump in our prayers, to guide him to love everyone and care of everyone.”
The Aljarmozis have also been comforting their mainly Latino staff, who are just as fearful of immigration changes. “They are concerned about their relatives and their family,” said Aljarmozi, who recently threw a party for a staff member who was reunited with her son after 12 years apart. But she’s been heartened by the support she’s gotten from the community since the ban was announced.
“[A customer] said, ‘I’m sorry about what happened, and we’ll be here for a Valentine’s date on the 14th. We’ll support you,’ ” she said.