(Photos: COLORS on Facebook)

News of President Trump’s tightened deportation plan together with the forty ICE arrests made in NYC last week and the earlier executive order restricting the entry of immigrants into the country has created an atmosphere of fear across the service industry. According to a national study by the Pew Research Center in 2009, 12% of the restaurant industry’s workforce are undocumented. The industry is notorious for paying near-poverty wages. And the increasingly hateful rhetoric surrounding immigrants, legal or not, is likely to restrict restaurant workers from fighting for better conditions.

That’s the argument put forth by the Sanctuary Restaurants movement, an initiative that advocates for discrimination-free work environments. Launched by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United) and Presente.org, the movement is a coalition of workers, consumers and restaurant owners pledging to take the “‘high-road’ to profitability.” They advocate for a new, higher minimum wage and equal opportunities for immigrants, refugees, people of all genders, faiths, races, abilities, and sexual orientations. Restaurants pledged to the movement prominently display a placard that declares their commitment to being anti-discriminatory.

While a Sanctuary Restaurant doesn’t offer legal protection from customs and immigration officials, it helps employers create a safe space for workers who feel threatened by the rhetoric against them. One restaurant owner, James Mallios of Amali on the Upper East Side told WNYC that joining the Sanctuary Restaurants movement is one way for him to fully support his colleagues in the kitchen. “I hear the scuttlebutt in the hallways, where immigrants are talking about people separating families, people coming in the middle of the night,” he says.

ROC-United’s own restaurant, COLORS, has been at Lafayette Street for ten years. Now it’s moving to a bigger space in the Lower East Side. But COLORS isn’t just about satiating the ever-hungry, ever-social LES (though it does have glowing reviews). It’s also home to the COLORS Hospitality Opportunities for Workers (CHOW) Institute, which offers professional training to fit every job profile in a restaurant. The program is free of cost and helps workers find a job after training. “We’ve trained four-five thousand workers since 2006,” says Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of ROC-United. The move to the Lower East Side is partly intended to scale up the training program.

While the restaurant itself isn’t a co-operative, it serves as an incubator for worker-owned co-ops. “We’ve spun off a number of worker-owned catering businesses, tea companies and other food companies out of the restaurant’s kitchen,” says Jayaraman.

Jayaraman envisions COLORS as the hub of the Sanctuary Restaurants movement. Supported by ROC-United, one of the strongest voices in securing policy changes to support restaurant workers, the new location is fast becoming a stronghold for employers with shared values to galvanize.

At the launch party for the Sanctuary Restaurants movement held at COLORS on February 13, restaurant owners spoke in support of the program even as workers stood beside them, excited. Highlighting the fact that minimum wage for tipped restaurant workers is still $2.13 an hour, ROC-United elicited support from its new members for a higher minimum wage so workers don’t have to depend on tips to earn a livable wage. COLORS is preemptively setting an example for this minimum-wage policy change that they’re advocating for. It prides itself on paying its employees what they call ‘One Fair Wage’ instead of the tip-dependent system that almost all other restaurants nationally follow. Several Sanctuary Restaurant members follow this system too.

The momentum from the Sanctuary Restaurants movement helped ROC-United resist the consideration of Andrew Puzder as Secretary of Labor. ROC-United perceived Puzder’s policies as a suppression of workers’ rights. He has since withdrawn. “That’s a big win for us,” says Jayaraman.

The initiative also became a significant mobilizer at last week’s city-wide strike, #adaywithoutimmigrants. “Of the 400 restaurants we now have involved with the program almost all of them agreed to support workers who wanted to walk off the job and 50 shut down all together,” says Jayaraman. Looking forward, ROC-United is organizing a women laborer’s march to the Department of Labor on March 8, International Women’s Day.

Jayaraman recalls what compelled her to start COLORS in the first place. “I was an attorney organizing low-wage immigrant workers out in Long Island when I got the phone call that there were these workers who’d lost their jobs,” she says. That phone call was about the workers at Windows Of The World, the top-floor restaurant in Tower One of the World Trade Center. When the towers came crashing down on 9/11, 76 workers lost their lives and 250 workers were left without jobs. The survivors banded together with the dream of opening a restaurant as an homage to their deceased co-workers and as a way to get back on their feet. Jayaraman formed ROC United to turn that into a reality. “We now have 25,000 worker-members, 250 restaurant-members and 3,000-4,000 consumer members across 15 states in the country. So we’ve just.. exploded.”

In an atmosphere of renewed vigor to fight the good fight, Jayaraman perks up about the symbolic possibilities that the LES offers to COLORS. “The Lower East Side is the true historic sanctuary place for immigrants in the country,” she says, stressing that a tangible way for consumers to support immigrants and restaurant workers is by patronizing the sanctuary restaurants that fight for their rights.

So fret not if your protest game has been waning lately. Here’s a list of some NYC Sanctuary Restaurants to choose from:

Courtesy: ROC United

COLORS Restaurant opens late March at 178 Stanton Street.