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‘Day Without Immigrants’ hits restaurant industry hardest

February 16, 2017 GMT

Businesses around the Triangle and across the country stayed closed Thursday as part of a national protest over President Donald Trump’s executive actions on immigration.

The hardest hit industry was food service, where immigrant labor makes up the majority, up to 70 percent in big cities like New York. An estimated 1.3 million in the industry are immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, according to the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.

Expensive restaurants and fast-food joints alike closed across the country. Sushi bars, Brazilian steakhouses, Mexican eateries and Thai and Italian restaurants turned away lunchtime customers.

In North Carolina, legal and undocumented immigrants make up more than 10 percent of the workforce.

Since the end of 2007, the number of foreign-born workers employed in the U.S. has climbed by nearly 3.1 million to 25.9 million; they account for 56 percent of the increase in U.S. employment over that period, according to the Labor Department.<br /> <br /> The foreign-born – who include American citizens, green-card holders and those working without legal authorization – tend to be younger and to take jobs in fields that have been growing fastest, including restaurants, hotels and stores.

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Relish Cafe & Bar in Raleigh ran the lunch service with managers doing the cooking because all of the regular kitchen staff took the day off. Nonetheless, owner Sharon May said she supported their decision not to show.

“I’m proud of all of them,” she said. “I mean, it’s hard, but it was important to us to show that a lot of immigrant people are the backbone of the restaurant industry for sure.”

Several servers and hosts also skipped their Thursday shifts, a total of 10 people in all.

“All of my employees here are very happy to pitch in and pull the extra load,” May said.

Many people who skipped work will lose a day’s pay or worse, and many student absences will not be excused. But organizers argued that the cause is worth the sacrifice.

May said employees of Relish will still be paid for the day.

A spokeswoman for Wake County schools said some schools saw “significant” impacts on attendance: Hodge Road Elementary typically has about 650 students, but roughly 290 were not in class Thursday.

“Wake County Public School System believes in a diverse school community that is inviting, respectful, inclusive and supportive,” Wake County schools spokeswoman Lisa Luten said in an email. “We are aware that some of our students are away from school to participate in nationwide protest efforts. We respect that right. We are also providing a normal and full day of learning and teaching.”

Hundreds gathered in Raleigh’s Moore Square – young and old, immigrant and simply those who support their right to be in the U.S.

Gabriel Lopez said he participated because he wants immigrant stories to be more widely understood.

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“What I would say is get to know people around your community who have those stories. Listen to their stories, and once you hear these stories, you’ll learn that these are people who want to be OK in life. Who simply want a better life,” he said.

Several stores in a south Raleigh shopping center, including La Deliciosa, Dulceria El Castillo, Panderia Pahuatlan, Divas Boutique and the International Foods grocery store, posted signs in their windows early Thursday morning confirming they would be closed.

Eligio Pena, general manager of Compare Foods, a chain of grocers with 15 stores across North Carolina, said on Wednesday that his stores would join in the protest.

“We decided to close the stores for one day to please the customers that were asking for it,” he said. “We going to be hurt a little bit, but I hope people come back in the next few days and spend the same amount.”

The grocery chain has more than half a dozen locations in Durham, Raleigh and the surrounding area.

Durham-based coffee shop Cocoa Cinnamon tweeted that it would also be closed, and Gonza Tacos y Tequila announced on Twitter it would be closed for lunch.

In Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and New York fine dining restaurants closed for the day. Grocery stores, food trucks, coffee shops and taco joints in places like Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston shut down.

Thousands marched through the streets of Detroit. Crowds gathered in Atlanta and Charlotte.

The protest even reached into the U.S. Capitol, where a Senate coffee shop was among the eateries that were closed as employees did not show up at work.

Organizers appealed to immigrants from all walks of life to take part, but the effects were felt most strongly in the restaurant industry, which has long been a first step up the economic ladder for newcomers to America with its many jobs for cooks, dishwashers and servers.