For restaurant owners in the nation’s capital, an immigrant worker strike is personal

“We are a family, and we wanted to show our support.”

Sign posted at a Busboys and Poets reading in part, “Dear Tribe, All Busboys and Poets locations will be closed on Thursday, February 16, 2017 in support of the #ADayWithoutImmigrants Strike.” CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee
Sign posted at a Busboys and Poets reading in part, “Dear Tribe, All Busboys and Poets locations will be closed on Thursday, February 16, 2017 in support of the #ADayWithoutImmigrants Strike.” CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee

If the 5 a.m. and 7 p.m. city-bound buses in some major cities across the country seem emptier than usual on Thursday, it’s because the people who work the food prep shift and the late night bartending shift have taken off for the day.

Many restaurant workers are striking on “A Day Without Immigrants,” a coordinated nationwide effort to let people feel how certain segments of the economy would look like without undocumented and legal immigrant labor. Roughly 1.2 million undocumented immigrants work in the food industry, according to a 2012 Pew Research Center report, a segment of the population now at risk of deportation.

The movement itself was borne from a widespread outcry in reaction to President Donald Trump’s bullish executive orders on immigration that have expanded the category of crimes punishable by deportation and restricted travel by some refugees. The strike is also a visible way to show how cities would look without immigrants. Officials say nationwide enforcement raids took in 680 people last week, including mothers, Sunday school teachers, and people who have temporary deportation protection. Those raids have left many immigrants paralyzed with fear that they may be next.

The strike will take place across hundreds of workplaces, schools, and other industries in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Boston, Houston, Austin, Chicago, and New York, metropolitan cities with big immigrant populations.

Within the nation’s capital, some business owners insist that Thursday’s restaurant closures or restaurants operating on limited capacity are an apolitical decision in spite of their close proximity to the White House.

Restaurant operators at Bar Pilar and Saint Ex, two popular restaurants near D.C’s U Street Corridor, will operate on a limited menu with the night’s tips going to support the staff on strike. Some cocktails proceeds are also going to raise money for various organizations.

“We are a family, and we wanted to show our support for [our staff] and what we stand on,” Erin Edwards, the director of operations at Bar Pilar and Saint-Ex, said in a phone interview. Edwards’ staff was eager to support one another. Managers have volunteered to bartend. Bartenders will cook in the kitchen. People who usually work front of the house will work in the back.

“We’ll see how it goes,” Edwards said with a laugh. “It probably won’t be as amazing — a little slower than the norm since I’m coming out of retirement to bartend.”

Operating on a limited menu is strictly a way for Edwards to show the staff that management cares.

“That’s what the hospitality business is about: we’re there for our community, we’re there for our staff.”

“It isn’t being against the president — it’s that we are supporting our staff,” Edwards said. “That’s what the hospitality business is about: we’re there for our community, we’re there for our staff. We don’t want the negativity. We’re just trying to turn things into a positive and I think that’s a good thing.”

“This is America and they also have a voice in the community and it was great for them to feel like they were supported for their viewpoints,” she added.

Customers were generally receptive when Pizzeria Paradiso announced the closures of three of its four locations. More than 1,000 people typically come to their restaurants on Thursdays, said Matt McQuilkin, Pizzeria Paradiso’s Director of Operations, but the restaurant chain wants its workers to know that they are family. Restaurant owner Ruth Gresser will also compensate workers on strike.

“The way that Ruth Gresser has always run the restaurant is that we are a very family-oriented restaurant,” McQuilkin told ThinkProgress. “Who we work with is our family and this is a cause that really speaks to a large part of our family. We felt that this was the best way to support that cause.”

“I’ve learned a lot from hearing about other people’s life experiences,” McQuilkin said, explaining that he agreed to the restaurant closure in part based on his personal interaction with immigrants. “That has personally given me a different perspective about life.”

McQuilkin said that the decision was solely based on “supporting a cause that is important to our industry.”

“We’re here to serve pizza and beer, not politics, so we generally refrain from commenting on political speculation,” McQuilkin said.

One strike will likely not change the hearts and minds of anti-immigrant politicians, but the effort is a visible and reassuring way to get customers to understand that immigrants are very much an integral part of America.

Andy Shallal, who owns the popular Busboy and Poets chain which roots itself in social justice activism, shut the doors to all six D.C. restaurants. Thousands of customers stream into his restaurants every day, he said, so Thursday’s closure, while a big financial hit, is important for him because he has a personal stake in the strike.

“I have a voice in this community and I want to make sure I use that voice.”

“I have a voice in this community and I want to make sure I use that voice,” Shallal, an Iraqi-American businessman, told ThinkProgress. He came to the country 50 years ago from Iraq after his diplomat father was assigned to the United States. When Saddam Hussein took power, his family was no longer welcome back in Iraq.

Shallal’s decision to close his restaurants also did not come lightly, especially because he employs more than 600 workers.

“This decision has a lot of ramifications on all levels,” Shallal said. “We hope that the attention we draw to this issue will help us move forward on true immigration reform that isn’t just about building a wall or hiring more security guards. That it will really be about true reform that takes into account the human aspect of immigration — like the idea that we cannot continue to separate mothers from their families, or making them wait ten to 20 years to come here.”

“I want to highlight immigrants are an important part of our community,” Shallal added, explaining that he was “very upset” with the current incendiary rhetoric about immigrants.

“We can unite against this deluge of hatred and anger that really doesn’t belong here in this city and certainly in this country,” Shallal said.