Sanctuary Restaurants

Sylvie Palmer | May 2021

Sanctuary Restaurants use the powerful theological symbolism of sanctuary prevalent in American immigration debates to declare their physical locations as safe havens for food service workers. While restaurants cannot legally protect undocumented migrants from immigration court procedures, these statements of solidarity meaningfully contribute to the Sanctuary Movement as a whole by demonstrating a concerted effort to create welcoming environments to all. To do this, the New York City based non-profit Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) connects workers with educational, professional, and legal resources and brings consumers’ attention to addressing the critical issue of mistreatment of undocumented workers. Using the symbolism of sanctuary adds a crucial element of moral authority to activists’ arguments for protecting migrants without documentation by employing the same text used by conservative Christians to extol the virtues of “family values.” The ROC teamed up with, an online campaign strategizing platform focused on equity and justice for Latinx communities, to create the Sanctuary Restaurant movement to support and protect restaurant workers. Sanctuary Restaurants in New York City lead the way for all business owners to take a more humanitarian approach to employment and for all people to treat each other with kindness and dignity. Fifty-five eateries in New York City have already joined the official Sanctuary Restaurant movement with more signing on every day, leading to a monumental shift in American employment paradigms.

This seismic shift in the Sanctuary Movement and immigration discourse came about as the American population reacted to the former President’s xenophobic rhetoric and policies. Millions of Americans began rallying around activists creating innovative, new tenets and branches of the broader Sanctuary Movement. Community leaders became aware of the deep-seated issues of the current immigration system at this point in time, effectively transforming the contemporary Sanctuary Movement to include municipalities (cities, counties, states) and campuses. Most recently, Sanctuary Restaurants joined in too.


A Place At the Table for Everyone

Participating eateries display a sign that reads: “SANCTUARY RESTAURANTS: A Place At the Table for Everyone” and emphasize their physical locations as safe spaces for all. While the Sanctuary Restaurants website offers a disclaimer that the label does not provide legal protection against migration authorities, restaurants can utilize their Fourth Amendment property rights to refuse entry for ICE agents without warrants. Additionally, restaurants are required to have all employees fill out I-9 forms, but they’re not required to take additional steps to verify the information that applicants provide, and restaurants often choose to turn a blind eye to potentially inauthentic documents, allowing more employment opportunities for undocumented workers. These restaurants also connect employees to additional programs; the ROC organizes restaurant staff, customers, and activists around its principles by providing access to professional development programs and training to recognize and mitigate any form of harassment in the workplace. The organization is deepening its involvement in municipalities with local chapters – New York where the organization is headquartered, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C, Chicago, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Orleans, Massachusetts, California — Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland.

Restaurateurs who participate in the movement establish Sanctuary Restaurants that prohibit all forms of harassment based on migrant or refugee status, race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation and participate in peer networks to work in the community to protect targeted employees. These people are critical to the larger Sanctuary Movement not only because of the important work that they do, but also because of scale: nearly half of all farm workers in the United States are immigrants, and one in four of those workers are undocumented. Additionally, about a third of food service workers in the US are immigrants, and about 12% of those workers are undocumented. The restaurant industry is America’s second-largest private sector employer, so the undocumented laborers in the industry make up a significant portion of American workers and therefore a considerable portion of the American economy. Furthermore, a critical mass of these immigrant workers are severely underpaid: the sector pays disproportionately low wages with little-to-no benefits and prevalent wage theft.  Many restaurant workers earn only $2.13 per hour before tips. This figure is the federal “tipped” minimum wage, which has remained constant since 1991 despite skyrocketing costs of living. Underpaid immigrants play an integral role in the entire American food system from farm to every type of table, so protections and support from the restaurant industry are absolutely vital. As Sanctuary Restaurants declare their solidarity with undocumented workers, they’re also making waves in industry standards: more and more establishments are paying a living wage and treating employees with more dignity, which has large-scale and long-term implications for businesses everywhere.


“Equal Parts Restaurant and Refuge”

No business exemplifies this extraordinary work more than La Morada, a self-declared “undocumented family-owned and operated Oaxacan restaurant” in the South Bronx. The restaurant has a lending library for the community and has been called a “sanctuary” by countless regular customers. The owner and head chef, Carolina, is working with her family and neighborhood volunteers to also create a sanctuary garden attached to the space, and their work deeply impacts the entire community. The family publicly denounced the unjust nature of deportations, and one member of the family turned himself in to border agents to publicize conditions from within the detention center where he was held through his feature in the Sundance Film Festival documentary, The Infiltrators. The family has become intimately familiar with the frightening, complex intricacies of the American immigration system and offers support and guidance for community members, who are always encouraged to feel at home in the restaurant. The New York Times describes La Morada as “equal parts restaurant and refuge.” Indeed, it is powerful, resilient, authentic restaurants such as La Morada that push the possibilities of sanctuary.