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ICE creates chilling effect on restaurant and Latino communities

Dominique Maria Bonessi

Late last month, most of the kitchen staff at The Boathouse walked off the job after immigration agents asked the Canton restaurant’s management for their immigration documents. Some of them have returned to work, but the incident sent a chill through Baltimore’s restaurant and Latino communities.

Alma Cocina Latina is just a few blocks from The Boathouse in Canton. The restaurant’s owner, Irena Stein, says starting her Venezuelan restaurant in Canton wasn’t easy.

“Well specifically because we are a Venezuelan restaurant it was very difficult, at the beginning, to find people that would understand the flavors that we need to portray in our food," said Stein. "Because Venezuelan food has not been around for a long time outside Venezuela.”

Stein says, essentially, she had to hire Latino workers who were familiar with the Venezuelan palate, but she says that has also made her restaurant and her workers a target.

“We did get a few people threatening us," said Stein.

During the national day without immigrants in February Stein’s restaurant closed and while receiving an outpouring of support from the community there were some critics.

“Basically, they wanted us to leave just because we were foreigners and the whole point for the day without immigrants was an opportunity to redefine what an immigrant is," said Stein.

In the wake of immigration rhetoric from President Trump’s administration and immigration agents asking for documentation at the Boathouse restaurant, Stein says her workers have also been fearful of the same happening at her restaurant. But she says she stands behind her worker.

"Everyone tries, as a united community, to protect everyone," said Stein. "And so there was a lot of concern for everyone because the threat suddenly brought out the ugliness of the term immigrant or Latino, ecetera.”

But not all restaurant owners share Stein’s sentiment.

“It’s not like I don’t believe in them or stand behind them as a people, but it is just like speeding," said Steve Ropp owner of Cask and Grain and the Portside Tavern in Canton. "You are either legal or you are not.”

Ropps says that when it comes to hiring workers who are non-US citizens he has trouble verifying that candidates have valid documentation.

"I think what is difficult that there is not any certain classes or certification that the government provides us as owners or managers to really hone our skills as to what to look for," said Ropp.

Non-US citizens with work permits do have social security numbers and pay taxes. One 27-year-old restaurant worker and a former Boathouse employee, who has a work permit, says ICE’s actions scared him and his coworkers. WYPR agreed to identify the worker as Alexander because he fears being deported.

“There are a lot of people," said Alexander. "Especially here in Baltimore we encounter a lot of racism."

Alexander says that some of those 30 employees who left the Boathouse are now having trouble finding work.

“They’re looking for work, but when other employers look at their resume and it says they come from the Boathouse restaurant and they are Latino, employers see it as a red flag and think they left because they are illegal in this country," said Alexander.

Immigration officials would only provide written comment on their deportation policies for those with work permits and would not go into specifics about the Boathouse incident, but the US Citizenship and Immigration Services website says:

"U.S. Employers must check to make sure all employees, regardless of citizenship or national origin, are allowed to work in the United States."

Work permits are granted to individuals who are asylum seekers, refugees, non-immigrants, and those with pending resident status.

"A work permit does not confer legal status in itself," said Michelle Mendez, an attorney with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network in Silver Spring.

Mendez says that under the current immigration policies, employees with work permits can still be deported if they fit into a category of those considered deportable.

“A work permit in itself is not going to protect someone from deportation," said Mendez. "You have to look back at the reason why they have access to a work permit in the first place and then work back from that.”

Regardless, Irena Stein says, in these times of uncertainty for immigrants she will continue to stand behind her employees.

"You know it is a country of immigrants," Stein laughs. "Everybody comes from somewhere.”

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