Food for Thought: The Expanding Role of Restaurants in the Sanctuary Movement

Petra Zuñiga | May 2021

In January 2017, the national restaurant labor group Restaurant Opportunity Centers United (ROC United) joined with Latinx online social justice organization to launch the Sanctuary Restaurants movement. The movement formed in response to President Donald Trump’s upcoming inauguration and his rhetoric and policy targeting undocumented immigrants. According to their joint mission statement, Sanctuary Restaurants:

  • Affirm the humanity and dignity of all. There is a place at the table for everyone.
  • Display the “Sanctuary Restaurant: A Place At the Table for Everyone” placard in their establishment
  • Offer or obtain informational support through Restaurant Opportunities Centers United
  • Participate in a peer network to exchange ideas and strategies

Since its launch, nearly 400 restaurants have joined the movement, vowing to stand against hate, harassment and discrimination of their workers and patrons.

However, the term “Sanctuary Restaurant” does not bear a legal definition. Apart from support and resources for its participating restaurants, the organization makes no claim of legal protection from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), nor does it offer restaurants as a physical location to take up sanctuary. Ultimately, declaring one’s business a Sanctuary Restaurant is largely a symbolic action. Despite this, some employers have turned to their private property and Fourth Amendment rights to demand warrants prior to ICE entering their establishment. For example, owners of Café Zola, in Ann Arbor Michigan, successfully turned away two ICE officers inquiring about an individual at their restaurant. Just three months prior, ICE agents went into another Ann Arbor restaurant and detained three workers. The officers ate breakfast at Sava’s Restaurant before entering the kitchen to look for an individual. Incidents such as this one emphasize the importance of the Sanctuary Restaurant movement and the role of individual restaurant owners in preventing ICE detentions. These Sanctuary Restaurants have the potential to throw a wrench in the well-oiled deportation machine that is ICE, even if they lack specific legal designations

Other workplaces and unions have been working to pass resolutions and redefine public policy to limit the dangers faced on the job for immigrants. California sectors of UNITE HERE, a national labor union, have been successful in creating contract provisions that prohibit retaliation against workers because of their immigration status. A new California law, A.B. 450 the Immigrant Workers Protection Act, bars employers from cooperating with ICE unless ICE has the appropriate judicial warrant or court order. It also requires that employers notify workers of potential ICE enforcement activities. Other unions have urged that employers refuse to turn over I-9 forms to ICE, which include documents such as one’s passport or Social Security number that could be used to verify immigration status. This growing network of “Sanctuary Workplaces” is helping to redefine private employers and public sanctuaries and broaden protection for undocumented workers in the restaurant industry and beyond.

Although these legal protections are important, the symbolic nature of the Sanctuary Restaurant movement should not be overlooked. The Sanctuary Movement, from which Sanctuary Restaurants took their name, also invokes the symbols of the church and the migrant. The Sanctuary Movement is a religious and political movement that formed in the 1980s to offer protection to undocumented refugees from Central America. Many communities of faith offered shelter, legal advice, and religious accompaniment as a form of civil initiative in response to the failings of the U.S. government to uphold immigration law and accept refugees fleeing war and persecution. The Sanctuary Movement continues today in many forms, from sanctuary cities, campuses, and workplaces to multi-targeted sanctuary movements and social network sanctuaries. During Trump’s time in office, at least 70 undocumented immigrants lived in Sanctuary churches in attempt to avoid deportation. Sanctuary Restaurants are just one link in the chain of organizations and people working to resist the unjust, anti-immigrant policy of the United States.

But why is it significant that a restaurant declares itself a place of sanctuary? One quarter of restaurant industry workers are Latino. Undocumented people make up nearly 10 percent of all restaurant employees in the United States, and up to 40 percent in cities like Los Angeles and New York. They are the backbone of the restaurant industry, which contributes around $800 billion per year to the economy. Many undocumented people work in the back of the house—as line cooks, bussers, dishwashers, and janitors—making them invisible to the public. This invisibility and physical distance represent the power imbalance between workers, customers, and employees who maintain the restaurant industry. Although declaring a restaurant “sanctuary” does not guarantee the safety of anyone inside, it is an important declaration of solidarity and support for all workers, undocumented or otherwise.

Sanctuary Restaurants also have the potential to help in new and valuable ways. When individuals take up sanctuary in a church, countless volunteers are often involved in providing security, legal assistance, and other crucial services. Lucio Perez, an immigrant from Guatemala, lived in sanctuary at the First Congregational Church in Amherst, MA, for three and a half years. Throughout this time, volunteers from over a dozen faith communities helped to provide food for him. During Juana Luz Tobar Ortega’s nearly four years in sanctuary, she often turned to cooking to escape from monotony and to connect with her family: “When my family is here with me and I can cook for them, it’s like the day flies by.… I don’t feel sad anymore because I’m with them and we are doing the same type of things we used to.”  In an interview with a local Amherst newspaper, Lucio Perez said that eating a tamale cooked by his wife carried the momentary feeling of being at home. While Sanctuary Restaurants may not be able to replicate this exact feeling, they can offer delicious food and high-quality ingredients to immigrants in sanctuary. Although it may be time consuming or costly for restaurants, this partnership may significantly ease the process of offering sanctuary, as well as improve the experience for immigrants living in it.