Nati Ramirez, right, with her sisters Lee, middle, and Lucy stand inside Don Ramon’s Mexican restaurant, a locally owned and operated business since 1982. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco restaurant owners offer employees sanctuary workplace

San Francisco restaurants are joining a national movement to establish sanctuary workplaces for undocumented employees and ensuring business owners know their rights if federal immigration officials raid their establishments.

In less than three months in the White House, President Donald Trump has increased fears of mass sweeps by federal immigration officials and penned an executive order to slash federal funding for cities like San Francisco that provide sanctuary laws to not cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

City Hall has vowed to counter Trump’s policies at every turn. This week, City Attorney Dennis Herrera took further legal action, filing in federal court a request to freeze Trump’s executive order, and Public Defender Jeff Adachi began hiring attorneys to staff a new unit to defend people who have been detained in immigration court.

Now, the hospitality industry is stepping up, too.

The Golden Gate Restaurant Association, which represents about 1,000 of approximately 4,500 restaurants in San Francisco, became last month among the first trade associations to join the “Sanctuary Restaurants” movement. Since it was announced in January by Restaurant Opportunities Center, some 21 local restaurants — including Lebeau Deli on Nob Hill and Delfina in the Mission — have followed suit, according to ROC’s website.

For a restaurant community with a strong reliance upon undocumented workers — more than 30 percent of San Francisco’s restaurant workers are believed to be undocumented — the disruption caused by immigration enforcement raids could be disastrous, not to mention the potential impact on local tax revenue.

Today, a formal announcement of local participation in the movement is expected at Don Ramon’s Mexican restaurant in the South of Market. The GGRA will also begin sponsoring a series of legal workshops for restaurant owners and employees to learn more about their legal rights from local immigration attorneys. The first workshop is scheduled on March 20 at Don Ramon’s.

Don Ramon’s was more than happy to become a sanctuary restaurant and host the first of the legal workshops.

Nati Ramirez, right, with her sisters Lee, middle, and Lucy stand inside Don Ramon’s Mexican restaurant, a locally owned and operated business since 1982. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
Nati Ramirez, right, with her sisters Lee, middle, and Lucy stand inside Don Ramon’s Mexican restaurant, a locally owned and operated business since 1982. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

“Being born from immigrant parents, you kind of become a fighter,” said Nati Ramirez, who is of three sisters who run the family-owned business, which opened in 1982.

“A lot of the employees are scared,” she added.

Ramirez’s parents crossed the border illegally in 1955 from Jalisco, Mexico. “I was the only one who was born here,” she said.

After operating other restaurants in San Francisco, they opened in 1982 Don Ramon’s which has something of a political center with notable local politicians as their patrons over the years as well as a choice spot for many campaign kick-offs.

By joining the sanctuary movement, restaurants commit to “not allow any harassment of any individual based on immigrant/refugee status, race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation to occur in their restaurant” and “place a prominent ‘SANCTUARY RESTAURANTS: A Place At the Table for Everyone’ sign in the establishment, according to the ROC website. There is also commitment to “participate in a peer network to exchange ideas and strategies for protecting targeted workers.”

Gwyneth Borden, executive director of the GGRA, said restaurant owners are looking for ways to help their employees during what’s “been a very scary time.”

“We already have a very tight labor market. We can’t afford to lose our workers,” Borden told the San Francisco Examiner on Thursday. “We also can’t afford to have people showing up for work fearful of being able to stay in this country. We, in general, support a path to citizenship and wish that this administration would focus on [the] path to citizenship.”

By signing onto the Sanctuary Restaurant movement, Borden hopes to encourage more restaurants to join the effort and put up the signs.

“More and more restaurants locally are starting to sign on to it. What I found is that there is concern about being a target. This president, he targets people,” Borden said. “What we are hoping for is, through our counsel and support of the initiative, that we provide the political cover for people to feel comfortable to sign on to it.”

Assemblymember David Chiu said he will attend the press event today to show his support.

“We commend the Golden Gate Restaurant Association as a private sector partner for stepping up and leading the resistance against anti-immigration policies that Trump has been spewing,” said Jen Kwart, Chiu’s spokesperson. Kwart noted that the trade association deserves praise for protecting the immigrant community who has made “the culinary industry what it is today.”

Chiu is also exploring a possible state law to address workplace protections for undocumented employees. He has already introduced the Immigrant Tenant Protection Act, a measure that would bar landlords from disclosing or threatening to disclose a tenant’s immigration status.

“We’re actively researching policies around workplace and immigration issues,” Kwart said.

Ramirez said she believes it’s important for business owners to know their rights.

“Anybody can come into the front door, but you have to educate yourself as an owner and say is there a warrant, who are you looking for?” Ramirez said. “They can’t just decide to barge into your open area in your kitchen because then someone is trespassing. They need to know when to say stop, wait a minute.”

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