More than 30 employees of The BoatHouse Canton did not show up to work over the weekend after Immigration and Customs Enforcement began a review of the restaurant's immigration records, the restaurant's co-owner said.
The southeast Baltimore restaurant received a request from ICE to review its I-9 forms on Thursday, said Gene Singleton, who co-owns the BoatHouse. By Friday, many dishwashers, line cooks, food runners, barbacks and other back of the house staff told managers they were "very, very fearful" about coming back, he said.
"We encouraged people to stay but we understood if they felt uncomfortable," Singleton said. "They were fearful of just not knowing what was going to happen and being separated from their families. They said they were going to have to go home and take care of their families."
ICE spokesman Matthew Bourke said the agency doesn't "confirm the existence of any ongoing investigation."
Singleton said his staff reviewed their policies and found no lapses in the paperwork they use to determine legal status.
"We have proper paperwork," he said. "We don't know whether they were all legal or partially legal or not legal."
Elizabeth Keyes, who directs the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the University of Baltimore, said it makes sense to assume that someone who didn't show up to work did so because they lack proper paperwork. But she isn't sure that's the case.
"If it was 2016, it would probably be folks who didn't have immigration paperwork, but in 2017, just the rumor of ICE coming somewhere would be enough to keep people from work," she said. "Some maybe didn't have papers, but I bet some did. I would expect even someone with a work permit to be too afraid to show up if they knew ICE would be scrutinizing the place where they work."
Singleton described the staff who left as "all really good people."
"We call them the heart of the house," he said. "They don't get enough recognition."
Singleton said the more than 90 staffers left had to keep pace with the regular weekend demand, including a 400-person event on Sunday. In a post on Instagram, the restaurant apologized to patrons who had a "less than great experience" and offered 50 percent off discounts to those who brought in receipts from Friday.
The restaurant also postponed a switch to a new summer menu. In a Facebook post, the restaurant said it would only be open for private events on Monday.
"We're going to work on our menus, take our time and bring in the right people," Singleton said.
Situations like this one are "incredibly disruptive to the fabric of our community and our economy," said Nick Katz, a legal manager with immigrant advocacy organization CASA de Maryland.
This is the first restaurant that has contacted CASA about this kind of incident, said spokeswoman Maria Fernanda Durand.
CASA commended the way restaurant management responded.
"It's heartening to see support being extended to workers and their families," Katz said. "The message is that immigrants are a real positive force for the economy, and instead of trying to criminalize them, we should be talking about a path to citizenship."
Not everyone agrees. Over the weekend, the restaurant's Facebook page turned into a microcosm for the national immigration debate, with some commenting that they would no longer eat there.
Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen also said this is the first time he's heard of ICE approaching a business in his district. He said the impact is "devastating" to the community.
"It's made a community that's already vulnerable go further underground," he said. "It's hurting commerce in our community and it's hurting families."