The co-owner of a dockside Baltimore restaurant has revealed that nearly his entire kitchen staff resigned after an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent demanded their papers in the latest example of the national debate over immigration.

In an open letter to his customers Saturday, BoatHouse Canton owner Gene Singleton blamed the Trump administration “for targeting the Hispanic community.” He has since been alternately condemned or praised for defending his workers regardless of their legal status.

So now the restaurant is short 30 workers, with the remaining staff working double shifts and the departed seeking help from an immigrant advocacy agency.

“Properly documented and potentially less than properly documented are all fearful of being separated from their families, many with small children,” Singleton wrote in a Facebook post Saturday, a day after their departure. “Many went home to pack up and leave.”

They were, Singleton told The Washington Post, “some of the best citizens we have.”

Every worker had passed the restaurant’s vetting process and appeared to be in the United States legally, he said. No one at the BoatHouse has been publicly accused of wrongdoing, and a spokesman for ICE said he could not confirm the existence of investigations.

The White House has said they are focused on deporting undocumented immigrants who "pose a threat to this country." (Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

Singleton said he had never before had issues with immigration: not when he started out in the restaurant business 35 years ago, and not when he and his wife opened the BoatHouse in 2014 — turning “an underused bar into a buzzing hotspot,” as a Baltimore Sun reviewer wrote.

The owner didn’t expect problems under President Trump either, he said, despite campaign talk of “bad hombres” and the administration’s push to penalize immigrants who commit crimes.

“I understood the immigrant community was not going to be targeted aggressively,” Singleton said. “Either I misunderstood or they changed.”

Change came to the BoatHouse about 3 p.m. Thursday, Singleton said, just after the lunch rush. An immigration agent walked up to the host stand and asked for a manager.

The agent delivered a demand letter, Singleton said: Provide a list of anyone who worked at the restaurant in the past two years, along with their employment eligibility forms.

“The guy was nice and polite,” Singleton said. “There was no scene.” Not yet, anyway.

An ICE spokesman said the agency conducted nearly 1,300 similar audits the year before — sometimes when it suspected an employer was violating hiring laws.

John Sandweg, an acting director of ICE under President Barack Obama, said the time-consuming audits were used sparingly during the last administration — usually when public safety was at risk or egregious crimes were suspected.

But “a lot of that is changing,” Sandweg said. “Trump has gone to a more randomized approach.”

An immigration lawyer who represented a high-profile deportee in the Obama years remembered the Obama administration’s policies differently. Obama’s ICE often used immigration audits to disrupt and humiliate large restaurants and inspire compliance, Ava Benach said such as an audit of Clyde’s of Gallery Place in 2013, in which more than 100 employees were deemed unauthorized to work in the United States.

But she, too, suspected the audits had taken on another purpose under Trump. “I think it’s part of the effort to make immigrants feel insecure in places where, through inertia, they felt secure,” Benach said.

Within days of his inauguration, Trump issued orders ending Obama-era policies of leniency for undocumented immigrants with clean criminal records. By May, immigration agents were arresting more than 400 immigrants a day, and arrests of those with no criminal records more than doubled.

The BoatHouse is hardly the only restaurant to bear the brunt. Raids on Asian restaurant in Mississippi detained more than 50 people in February, the Los Angeles Times reported. In Michigan last month, a restaurant owner reported that a group of ICE agents sat down, ate breakfast and then hauled off three workers.

Whatever the purpose of the demand letter delivered to the BoatHouse, Singleton said, the owner didn’t think the agent’s request was a big deal. He’d just get the government the information it wanted.

But word quickly spread through the kitchen, he said, and there it caused a crisis.

That evening a chef called a manager, Singleton said. “He told him, ‘All our people are really fearful. I’m not sure if they’re going to come back tomorrow.’ ”

The full crew did show up the next morning, Singleton said.

He came first thing, too, “to come up with a plan.”

Instead, he said, he got reports from chefs and managers throughout the day, as a full quarter of BoatHouse’s staff decided they had no choice but to go home and not return.

Six of those workers, so far, have sought help from Casa, an immigrant advocacy group in Maryland.

One man remembered immigrant rights training he’d received at his child’s school, said Casa organizer Lydia Walther-Rodriguez, and wanted to make sure the rest of the staff were prepared if an agent came to their door.

“This is the first time I’ve seen the community self-organizing,” Walther-Rodriguez said. “This is the first time I’ve seen this happen before a raid.”

Another rarity: the letter Singleton posted to the restaurant’s Facebook page Saturday.

Posted by The Boathouse Canton, Waterfront Grille on Saturday, June 24, 2017

The remainder of his staff, about 90 people, had just spent a shift turning away customers without reservations, cutting the menu to only the popular items and working double duty on what Singleton wrote was “the saddest day for the BoatHouse family in its three-plus years.”

He apologized for any disruption in the service and said some proceeds from the restaurant would go to help departed families he called the “heart” of his restaurant.

Beneath the letter: streams of comments that alternated between sympathy — “All these workers want a chance to live better,” or “Class act Gene” — and suspicion.

“If everything was within compliance, why did 30 employees leave? Something stinks here,” one commenter wrote.

Another: “You’ll never see a dime of my money.”

Though he didn’t know anything about the case, Sandweg, the former acting ICE director, found Singleton’s version of events plausible.

“You can be doing everything right and be presented with false documents and it can be very difficult to tell,” he said.

On the other hand, Sandweg said: “With the rhetoric and stories happening every day, it wouldn’t surprise me if you had people who are lawfully able to work but are just frightened and flee.”

Singleton still has a business to run, either way.

He said he spoke to ICE officials Monday and will soon turn over the documents they asked for.

In the mean time, news crews hound his restaurant, and there are hiring signs out front.

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