In D.C., a 'Day Without Immigrants' is a day without sandwiches, child care and fitness classes

A national grassroots protest organized entirely through social media called for immigrant staff at to go on strike Thursday by staying at home for the day as a response to U.S. President Donald Trump's immigration policies.

'These are the ties that bind, the people who hold it all together,' Washington restaurateur says

Johnny Fulchino, co-owner of Johnny's Half Shell in Washington, D.C., was among dozens of prominent business operators who observed a 'Day Without Immigrants' on Thursday by closing up shop to recognize the contribution of immigrant labour. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

The lunch-hour rush in Washington on Thursday was prime time to witness some strange choreography.

If you were at the right spots around noon, it went something like this: A would-be diner approaches a locked restaurant entrance, tugs a few times on the door, assumes a flummoxed expression, reads a new sign about supporting diversity in the American workforce, then departs hungry but usually in solidarity.

And so it went at dozens of locations around the city observing a national "Day Without Immigrants."

The grassroots protest organized entirely through social media called on immigrant staff to go on strike by staying home for the day as a response to U.S. President Donald Trump's immigration policies, including his executive actions threatening to dramatically restrict immigration and ramp up deportations.

Some 40 million Americans are foreign-born naturalized citizens; another 12 million people are undocumented immigrants who paid $11.64 billion in state and local taxes in 2013, according to a recent study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

Would-be diners at Bub and Pop's sandwich shop in Washington arrive to find a sign on the door announcing the restaurant is closed in observance of a 'Day Without Immigrants.' (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Their absence did no favours for Joel Diamond's appetite as he stood outside Bub and Pop's, a popular downtown purveyor of handcrafted sandwiches that closed for the occasion in support of its Latino staff.

"The cause is more important than my lunch right now," Diamond said, leaving without his midday hoagie.

A woman ambled up to a group huddled around a yellow sign announcing the eatery's closure in observance of the political movement. "You guys in line? Is it closed?" she fumed, craning her neck to read the sign.

"Ohhh yeah. Day Without Immigrants!"

She downshifted to a tone of composed dejection.

"I understand. I accept that," she said, as her friends burst out laughing.

'Important people, great people'

Outside of Washington, businesses in New York, Phoenix, Atlanta, San Francisco, Chicago and Minneapolis also closed their doors for the Day Without Immigrants.

Some schools in Texas reported dramatic drops in attendance, and parents worked from home while looking after their children when their daycares announced they would be partaking in the movement.

Johnny Fulchino, owner of the Capitol Hill mainstay Johnny's Oyster Bar, said he decided to temporarily close the seafood restaurant's new location in the highly Hispanic Adams Morgan district "to amplify the voices of the kids working for me."

"We have plenty of kids from El Salvador at both my restaurants. If we just stayed open, no one would hear their voice," Fulchino said. "These are people like my sous-chef, who's been working for me 17 years, my oyster-shuckers, my line cooks, my dishwashers — important people, great people who do a great job."

Demonstrators march during a 'Day Without Immigrants' protest in Washington. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

Fulchino expects to take a hit financially, but he says the show of unity is what matters.

"These are the most important people. These are the ties that bind, the people who hold it all together."

In Washington, where 48 per cent of people working in the restaurant industry are foreign-born, according to the Washington Post, celebrity restaurateur Jose Andres closed three of his trendy restaurants for the day. To his announcement on Twitter, he added: #ImmigrantsFeedAmerica.

In Minneapolis, Carl Atiya Swanson, who works at an arts non-profit, ended up bringing his one-year-old and three-year-old sons to his office for the day when their daycare informed parents that staff wanted to participate in the strike action.

"In this climate, it made sense to vocally support movements to highlight the importance of immigrants in America," Swanson said, noting that the daycare messaged parents on Wednesday, informing them that 95 per cent had been supportive of the move to observe a Day Without Immigrants.

A combative Trump

Mi Palacio Child Development Center, a Spanish-immersion daycare in Washington, decided around noon on Wednesday that it would be supporting its mostly Latina staff by giving them a day off to protest.

It meant Capitol Hill staffer Marc Cevasco, chief of staff for California Congressman Ted Lieu, ended up at home feeding and changing diapers for his seven-month-old, Nathan. He played with the infant on the floor and made sure he was napping — all while juggling the day-to-day duties of editing press releases, arranging schedules and co-ordinating media interviews for his boss.

Washington residents Joel Diamond, left, and French immigrant Anais Caput, tried to have lunch at Bub and Pop's on Thursday, only to learn it was closed. 'I think it's great. I'm all for it. And a lot of people are noticing this, especially in D.C.' (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"Is it convenient? We work on the Hill, we're voting, we have a busy day today and I'm trying to manage it with my son," Cevasco said from his home, noting that Lieu himself is an immigrant, born in Taipei.

"But if you believe in standing up for immigrants against the harmful rhetoric that's out there, then if it inconveniences you on a random Thursday, you just gotta step up."

In solidarity with the movement, Lieu issued a statement calling the United States a "chronicle of the success of immigration."

Marc Cevasco, chief of staff for California Congressman Ted Lieu, worked from home to take care of his son, Nathan, on Thursday after the seven-month-old's daycare opted to observe the Day Without Immigrants. (Courtesy Marc Cevasco)
And as Cevasco was at home with his baby, he was also watching Trump's news conference Thursday, in which the president vowed to issue a new executive order on immigration within a week, with "extreme vetting" of refugees. The new order will come after his previous, chaotically-enforced travel ban was blocked by courts, the president said, mounting another combative news conference in which he lambasted the media.

Cevasco said he shut the TV off, wondering, "How much of this is healthy to expose a seven-month-old to?"

Immigrant labour at all levels

At the city's VIDA fitness centres, gym members learned some of their favourite classes were cancelled as instructors were given the day off. David von Storch, president and founder of the Urban Adventure Companies, which operates the gyms, estimated about a third of the corporate team opted to stay at home to support the Day Without Immigrants.

"You can see a lot of empty seats around us," von Storch said. "We, like every company, rely on immigrant labour at all levels — our director of marketing, our construction co-ordinator, our controller, our housekeeping staff and our facilities team."

VIDA fitness centre managers (from left) Bradley Padavick, Nancy Burnham and Justin McCown wash and fold gym towels, a job typically reserved for the gym's housekeeping staff, which is largely foreign-born. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

That left upper management to wash and fold thousands of gym towels. It might be possible for a day, said general manager Nancy Burnham, but it's not sustainable without the help of the housekeeping staff, made up of mostly immigrants.

"I've been in here for the four hours, literally non-stop. They just keep going," Justin McCown, VIDA's member experience manager, said over the hum of industrial dryers.

"And this is just one of the housekeeping duties," added Bradley Padavick, an assistant GM. "Without their help, we wouldn't survive."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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