The national restaurant industry is bracing for a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement operation that could round up hundreds of migrant families that have received deportation orders. Restaurant owners and worker advocates hope the operation, planned to start on Sunday, will not disrupt an industry already hurting for staff, or broaden into a wider investigation of employees not on the Trump administration’s deportation lists.
President Trump announced on Monday that the roundups would move forward despite debate within the administration over the potential humanitarian issues (separating children from their parents) and political fallout (alienating Democrats as Congress debates a $4.6 billion supplemental aid package to deal with the crisis at the border) of the operation to remove up to 2,000 families. News reports later confirmed that the Department of Homeland Security and ICE would proceed with “family op,” as the agencies call the plan, in up to 10 major immigrant destinations such as Los Angeles, Houston, Miami and other cities.
Restaurant associations and immigrant advocacy groups across the country were sending out mass emails to members and workers this week, alerting them to their rights should ICE agents knock on their doors. The California Restaurant Association, the Illinois Restaurant Association, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (which advocates for restaurant workers), South Asian Americans Leading Together (which advocates for the rights of South Asians in the United States) and the Restaurant Law Center (the legal affiliate of the National Restaurant Association) were among the groups alerting constituents about the expected ICE actions.
Their messages were basically the same: They provided information on what both employees and employers can and cannot do when targeted as part of an ICE raid. The groups emphasized many of the same points, including that ICE agents must have a signed judicial warrant to enter the workplace and that employees have the right to remain silent. Several advocates said that, in the face of federal immigration officers, employers and employees frequently don’t realize they have the right not to incriminate themselves.
Fear, said Saru Jayaraman, president and co-founder of ROC United, is part of the Trump administration’s tactics when announcing, in advance, when the ICE raids will take place. It’s both the specificity (10 cities) and the randomness (no one knows where agents will show up) that cause anxiety among workers, she added. Employees will just leave their workplaces rather than wait on ICE agents to possibly appear, and their departures can sometimes leave restaurants in the lurch.
“Every time this new threat arises, workers don’t show up.” Jayaraman said. “This is not the first time, and each time it doesn’t just hurt the workers and their family, but it hurts the owners and the customers.”
The restaurant industry, observers point out, is particularly vulnerable to immigrant enforcement actions. An estimated 1.3 million unauthorized workers toil in the “leisure and hospitality” industries, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s about 8 percent of the workforce.
“I would bet two weeks pay that every business with over 20 employees in the hospitality sector has at least one undocumented employee,” said Madeleine Tillotson, Chicago director of sales and marketing for Rooam, a mobile payment start-up focused on the restaurant industry. As part of her job, Tillotson talks with dozens of clients, and potential clients, in the Chicago area, often hearing the fears that ripple through the restaurant industry.
In response to questions about the agency’s tactics and potentially widening the scope of its operation, spokeswoman Kate Pote emailed: “ICE officers routinely conduct targeted enforcement actions. Officers do not conduct arbitrary ’round ups’ or ‘raids,’ nor do they indiscriminately engage with and/or arrest individuals.”
The Trump administration has signaled that the upcoming raids will target only those migrant families that have gone through due process and received a final deportation order. But Lakshmi Sridaran, interim co-executive director of SAALT, said that information is being passed around the “immigration hub” — a coalition of immigrant rights organizations that share intelligence from the field — that the Trump administration has expanded beyond its original targets to include “unaccompanied children who have aged out.” Minors, in other words, who are 18 years or older.
What’s more, recent ICE raids at restaurants have gone beyond their intended targets. In April, ICE agents targeted a 42-year-old man from Mexico who worked at popular Mexican restaurant in Crawfordsville, Ind., about 50 miles northwest of Indianapolis. The man had a felony conviction for sexual and domestic battery. The federal agents got their man. They also got six other restaurant employees — known as “collateral arrests” — who were reportedly unauthorized to work in the country. ICE’s expanded roundup raised concerns in the mostly conservative community.
Several months earlier in January, ICE agents targeted a restaurant in Chatham, N.Y., reportedly looking for an undocumented Guatemalan man with pending criminal charges. According to the Times Union newspaper, “The officers went back into the kitchen and began questioning workers about their immigration status. They arrested three men — including the one they had initially targeted.”
There is also concern among restaurant owners that ICE officials may be coordinating with the Social Security Administration, which, according to the New York Times, has mailed out letters to more than 570,000 employers since March, notifying the companies that the names of some employees do not match their Social Security number. Restaurateurs fear that ICE may be also targeting those employees with mismatched Social Security numbers.
These letters “are not uncommon,” said Melissa Stewart, executive director of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association. “They can have them for myriad reasons.” Social Security numbers may not match sometimes, Stewart said, because of basic clerical errors, though she did not rule out the possibility of undocumented workers, either.
Once migrant families — and anyone else caught up in ICE’s actions — are detained, the Immigrant Justice Corps will mobilize their fleet of lawyers to help. Jojo Annobil, executive director of IJC, said that many of the targeted migrants probably did not receive due process, despite assurances from the Trump administration. The “rocket docket” that sped these immigrants through the courts left many of them at a loss on what to do, he said. Some didn’t have counsel. Some weren’t notified of their hearings. Some, because English is their second language, thought their ICE agency check-ins were their court hearings, Annobil said.
The Immigrant Justice Corps has put together an information network to try to track the migrants whom ICE detains for deportation. IJC plans to file emergency motions to get their cases reopened because, Annobil said, numerous immigrants have a good argument for asylum because they face legitimate threats back in their home countries.
“There’s a more humane way to do this,” Annobil said of the immigration system.