A Day Without Immigrants, referred to as “Un Día Sin Inmigrantes” on social media, is a grassroots campaign to stage a one-day work stoppage. The campaign aims to highlight immigrants’ contributions to the economy in response to rising anxiety over deportation threats.
This stands to affect restaurants in particular. According to the Pew Research Center, 1.2 million restaurant workers in the U.S. are undocumented (among the estimated eight million total in the labor force). Along with being the largest employer of workers who represent minority groups—including immigrants—the restaurant industry is the second largest and the fastest growing market in the U.S. economy.
Several Triangle restaurants said on Wednesday that they will close today and give workers the day off to honor the action. They include Cocoa Cinnamon, Dain’s Place, Don Becerra, Elmo’s Diner, and Geer Street Garden in Durham; Centro, Gallo Pelón, and Garland in Raleigh; and Merritt’s Grill in Chapel Hill. The list also includes all twenty-eight Compare Foods supermarkets across the state. Two rallies are currently planned in Durham at Compare Foods (2000 Avondale Drive) and in Raleigh’s Moore Square. Similar actions are taking place in top resaurants around the country, like Cosecha in Oakland, all of famed chef Jose Andres’s establishments in Washington, D.C., and South Philly Barbacoa in Philadelphia, named one of the top ten best restaurants in 2016 by Bon Appétit magazine.
“We are closed today in respect and support of our immigrant workers. Over the years, you have been served by people from many nations, cultures, religions. Our business cannot exist without them,” says the sign on the door at Elmo’s in Durham. But some restaurateurs are warier of advertising their participation. Among chefs and immigrant workers, some of whom claim both of those identities, there is a palpable sense of fear and uncertainty as ICE raids sweep the country under President Trump. (Most recently, ICE picked up a youth in Seattle who had a DACA permit, and, in El Paso, detained a domestic-violence victim who was in court seeking a restraining order against her boyfriend.)
On Wednesday morning, the mood at the Durham market and taqueria Don Becerra teeters between gallows humor about a new reality under Trump and concern about how the walkout would affect perceptions of the Triangle’s immigrant population. Cashier Leticia Fernandez sets a small plastic bag filled with dried pinto beans onto a scale for a customer. Overhearing that the store would close the next day, the customer declares, in Spanish, that he came here legally and doesn’t think skipping a day of work would benefit anyone. Fernandez politely rings him up, handing over the beans and waiting until he walks out of earshot before saying, “People like that, with the privilege of being legal, think that they are only American. They don’t support their countrymen.”
She pulls out her phone to look at a message on her Facebook app. It alerts the community in Spanish to what someone thought was an ICE patrol van lurking on Holloway Street near Highway 70 around seven a.m. Other rumors on social media indicated possible raids in North Raleigh kitchens and at a Durham Salvadoran restaurant, and an ICE checkpoint on Erwin Road and 15-501 in Chapel Hill. (Yesterday, the Chapel Hill Police Department tweeted that they were not doing immigration checkpoints.) None of these were confirmed to be true, but it is clear that, for local immigrants, their immediate future looks uncertain.
Market and taqueria owner Javier Becerra has manned his Durham shop and restaurant for fifteen years after moving from Michoacan, Mexico, twenty-eight years ago. Though he says his customers are mostly Latino, he recalls a day where he deliberately walked out of the kitchen into the dining room to take a photo: “There were Mexicans, Indians, Japanese, and black Americans all eating at my taqueria at that moment. It was beautiful.”
While he feels supported by a community of allies, Becerra does question some more foodie motives. “Everyone loves tacos,” he says. “But they don’t all love us. To fight means working together. We pay taxes, we contribute, we want a better life for our children. And now there’s a fear for what could happen. We are here, and we must stop the deportations. [The government] is separating families.”
The campaign’s history is rooted in a 2006 May Day action that began in California as a boycott inspired by the farmworker movement of the 1960s. That year, the Associated Press reported more than one million workers skipped work and “took to the streets” in demonstrations around the country. In North Carolina, a large demonstration led by thousands of Latinos in Siler City on May 1, 2006 caused chicken plants like Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms to close processing facilities in anticipation of worker absences.
Angela Salamanca, owner of downtown Raleigh’s Centro restaurant, was alerted to the general “walkout” by her kitchen staff. She closed both Centro and Gallo Pelón, the mezcal bar upstairs. Her establishments are rooted in the thriving downtown city center just steps away from the capitol building. “Maybe it could humanize the issue,” she says of A Day Without Immigrants. As an American citizen and Colombian immigrant, Salamanca recalls a time when she, too, was undocumented.
“This is not something that is happening theoretically in an airport or somewhere else in the world,” she says. “This impacts our community, and the places that we cherish and belong to together.”
At Garland, chef-owner Cheetie Kumar says the restaurant will close for lunch.
“As an immigrant, I want to give our staff the whole-hearted freedoms to protest peacefully,” says the chef, who yesterday was nominated for a James Beard award. Garland will open for dinner and donate 100 percent of profits to the ACLU.
Of the growing food-obsessed culture in the Triangle, Salamanca notes that “we get caught up in certain niches” that make it easy to ignore the human labor and sacrifice behind the kitchen door. “We cook and feed people, and I think there’s common ground there,” she says. “We get into this business to make it comforting and special. These are the issues surrounding that.”
Update: For Durham Public Schools students, student absences related to Day Without Immigrants events can be, in some cases, excused. From a memo sent by Superintendent Bert L’Homme to DPS principals yesterday and obtained by the INDY this morning (emphasis added):
Day without ImmigrantsGuidance on Student Absences
Please be aware that a national event, “Day without Immigrants,” is being planned for communities across the country including Durham for Thursday, February 16, 2017. The idea is to show how a day without immigrants (not going to work, not accessing businesses, not purchasing items, and not sending children to school) will look like.
The following guidance is provided to you regarding possible student absences in Durham Public Schools in connection with this event.
Policy 4101.2 Excused Absences – The principal may excuse student absences for the following reasons, provided that satisfactory evidence of the excuse is provided to the principal.
4101.2 G Educational opportunity – When the student obtains the principal’s prior approval of a valid educational opportunity.
In accordance with board policy, if a parent indicates that observing the “Day without Immigrants” on February 16, 2017 is an important learning experience for their child, the principal may excuse this absence provided satisfactory evidence is provided to the principal.