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Baltimore business officials concerned after immigration inquiry sends employees packing

The Boathouse Restaurant in Canton. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

The Boathouse Restaurant in Canton. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Hispanic and other Maryland business leaders are expressing concern after an Immigration and Customs Enforcement inquiry led 30 employees of The BoatHouse in Canton to resign last month.

ICE requested the restaurant’s I-9 forms, which require employees to provide identification and proof of employment eligibility. Employees cannot knowingly hire someone who fail to provide this documentation.

Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce president Jorge Castillo said the situation at The BoatHouse is unusual, though.

“The restaurant was basically picked out of nowhere, randomly,” he said. “This, to me, is a little uncharted territory. I just haven’t seen it before in Baltimore.”

While ICE doesn’t comment on the existence of possible investigations, an agency spokesman said the audit likely resulted from information collected by agents.

“This type of enforcement isn’t new – ICE conducted over 1,200 I-9 inspections in FY2016. When agents receive information that an employer is violating federal law as it pertains hiring practices, then an audit may be initiated,” the spokesman said in a statement.

Even though I-9 checks are customary, this year’s climate is different, Castillo said, due in part to the anti-immigration rhetoric of President Donald Trump.

“It does come from the top, and obviously that’s been something that’s been the center stone of the presidential campaign and still remains so,” he said. “We saw this after Trump was elected: people were scared. They wouldn’t go out. Mothers wouldn’t send their children to school. I’m worried we’re going through another wave of that.”

Trump opened his campaign with calls for building a wall on the border with Mexico, and he has since put forth an executive order expanding deportable offenses to include anyone who officials believe has “committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense” even if they have not been charged.

Hispanic Chamber leader Jorge Castillo speaks during a press conference in August of 2016. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Hispanic Chamber leader Jorge Castillo speaks during a press conference in August of 2016. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Castillo emphasized that many employees may have resigned for fear not of their own status, but that of a family member or friend.

Maryland Chamber of Commerce executive director Christine Ross said she fears the impact deportation fears could have on the restaurant industry.

“It creates just a level of unease in a community that is really corrosive to the culture,” Ross said.

The two chambers are collaborating to provide recommendations to businesses on the issue.

The state chamber recommends that businesses educate their employees, in their native language if possible, so that if their legal employment status is in order and they aren’t fearful if immigration officials come knocking, Ross said.

Castillo said businesses, particularly restaurants, which are often staffed largely by immigrants, should consider enlisting an attorney to speak with employees regarding their rights.

Castillo said that businesses also should create back-up plans for operating understaffed just in case they face a similar dilemma to that of The BoatHouse.

“If you don’t have a disaster recovery plan, you’re going to be in a situation where you’re up the creek without a paddle, because you can’t replace these people in a day, in a week, or even in a month — you have to train them, too,” he said.

Castillo recommended that businesses create emergency abridged menus, which he said The BoatHouse did after it lost a quarter of its staff, or make plans to change their operating hours in the event of such an exodus.

While Castillo and Ross said that no businesses have contacted them regarding immigration enforcement or immigration fears, Castillo said he urged other businesses to consider the threat.

“This may very well become the norm for the next three years, and it’s a reality that other businesses have to face. They have to be prepared,” Castillo said.

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