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After what they did, don’t let Kirstjen Nielsen and her colleagues eat in peace

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen listened to President Trump at the White House Wednesday.Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press/Associated Press

Earlier this month, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was heckled by protesters as she ate dinner at MXDC Cocina Mexicana in D.C. “Shame! Shame!” they shouted repeatedly. “End family separation! If kids don’t eat in peace, you don’t eat in peace.”

What they were referring to, of course, was the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the border. Nielsen, as a Globe editorial recently said, was the face of that policy. And here she was at a Mexican restaurant, albeit one run by Todd English (chef de cuisine Juan “JC” Pavlovich is a native of Mexico). I don’t believe you should be allowed in this country, but I just can’t get enough of your seasonal ceviche!


White House adviser Stephen Miller was called a fascist at another D.C. Mexican spot, Espita Mezcaleria; press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave Virginia restaurant the Red Hen. Hope you like your dinner with a side of protest, because restaurants are one place where government officials must encounter their public — and the incensed public is just getting started.

Turns out for many, images of children in cages and audio of their cries override the desire for a quiet meal at a local boite. The administration’s shift in policy, to one that keeps families together indefinitely in federal custody, doesn’t change much. These officials have shown us who they are, and what they are willing to do. And for the thousands of children who have been separated from their parents, it is too late.

“I have two kids, 10 and 8, and if I don’t see them for one night I go crazy,” said Alvaro Sandoval, owner of Mexican restaurant Tenoch, who came to this country in 1999 and has been a citizen for nine years. “It is hard to see this. It’s really hard. What are they running from? They can’t stay back home. They’re looking for a better life, that’s for sure. I just hope they can work something out, for everybody. I cross my fingers.”


Restaurants are particularly apt theaters for protest in this case, because without immigrants, the restaurant industry would not function. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the more than 9 million people employed in restaurants and other food services in 2017, more than one-quarter were Hispanic or Latino. Last February, as part of a nationwide “Day Without Immigrants” protest, many restaurants closed or scaled back their offerings. It was recognition of how dependent the industry is on this population.

Restaurant-industry sales reached almost $800 billion in 2017, according to figures from the National Restaurant Association. One of the biggest challenges facing that industry is a labor shortage. “Recruitment and retention of employees continues to strengthen as a top challenge for restaurant operators in 2017,” according to an association report. “As the economy keeps improving and employment levels rise, there is more competition for qualified employees to fill vacant restaurant positions.”

In other words, those who want to continue to eat at nice restaurants need more immigrants to enter this country.

There’s a sign you’ll see on the doors of many local restaurants. It reads: “This business serves everyone.” Everyone, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, or belief system. That’s hospitality. Since the days of lunch-counter sit-ins, we have held dear the concept that no one should be denied service. “The days of,” as if they were so long ago. It hasn’t even been 60 years. (Apropos of nothing at all, it’s been 73 since the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps.)


Restaurants are where we are supposed to set aside our differences and come together at the table. Yet — thus — they are venues where our injustices appear especially clear. It is easy to see that black men are the ones who get the cops called on them while waiting for friends at Starbucks. It is easy to see that same-sex couples are the ones to whom bakeries refuse to sell wedding cakes.

Those who work in the food industry are uniquely positioned — and uniquely entitled — to advocate for immigrants. After all, their businesses depend on the people Trump says threaten to “infest” this country.

Chef Tiffani Faison’s restaurants, Tiger Mama and Sweet Cheeks, display the “This business serves everyone” sign. But what if “everyone” was recently cool with separating your immigrant co-workers from their children at the border?

“We put that question to ourselves a lot,” she said. “We say a lot that hospitality goes both ways. When people are abusive or racist or rude or misogynistic to our staff, we ask them to leave. The question for us then becomes: You are de facto doing something to our staff, disrespecting our staff. Do we then let you in the door? That’s a harder question to answer.”


Maybe the tempering of the separation policy shows that the public can get to this administration. Maybe not. But protest is one tool readily accessible right now to those who seek an alternative to silence. If we believe what is happening in this country is wrong, we may have to ruin a few dinners on the road to right.

Protest Nielsen as she tucks into her tacos. When Miller sidles in for salsa and cerveza, send him a message. When Corey Lewandowski eats at Olive Garden, tell him “womp womp” ’til he puts down the breadsticks. When Jeff Sessions comes in quoting Scripture, cite him to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13: “Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

No one should be asked to serve someone who would take his or her children. That is something we have required in this country’s shameful past. Let it not be part of this shameful present.

Devra First can be reached at devra.first@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.