Inside a restaurant on Newport’s hip Broadway Street, diners enjoy a warm summer evening. Back in the kitchen, cooks chop vegetable and plate meals while dishwashers clean pots and pans. There are 11 people in the kitchen tonight, and all but one is Hispanic.
Walk into any kitchen in one of Newport’s many restaurants, and you will find Hispanic employees, mostly from El Salvador and Guatemala. Restaurants are a big employer for the Hispanic community, but some of these workers are undocumented.
A study by the Pew Hispanic Center found that nearly 19 percent of dishwashers and 17 percent of cooks across the country were unauthorized workers in 2012.
Maria grew up in Mexico City and has lived in Newport for more than a decade. We are not using her real name here because she is undocumented. For many years, she and her husband have worked in Newport restaurants and she has moved up the kitchen line, from shucking oysters to preparing appetizers.
“We wake up at seven in the morning and we work until four then we go to work at another restaurant,” said Maria. “We leave our next job at midnight and go home. That is our routine five days a week,” she continued.
Maria recently decided to return to Mexico for good at the end of this year. She doesn’t know how she will make a living once she get there, but she feels that she has to go. “ Because I have two children and I haven’t seen them in 13 years. I miss them a lot,” she said.
Maria’s reason for leaving Newport is to be with her children, but she has noticed a rising fear in Newport’s Hispanic community because of President Donald Trump’s policies towards immigrants, especially Hispanic ones.
“Many people think that we come to the United States because we are criminals, as the president has said, that Mexicans, we are drug traffickers, rapists and we hand out drugs,” said Maria. “No sir, we are not like that. We come here to work. We didn’t come here to take away anything from anyone,” she continued.
Maria made the difficult decision to divorce her husband, José before leaving the United States. He has no way of applying for a visa to travel with her to Mexico because he too is in this country illegally. José recently met with an immigration attorney about how to become a legal resident, but he thinks the only way he could become one is to marry an American or Green Card holder.
José has eight siblings and six of them live and work in the United States. Four of them live and work in Newport, drawn here by the standard of living and the amount of work available.
“It’s very pretty here. There is a lot of work, a lot of tourists,” said José. “In the summer there is a lot of work, and in the winter, it slows down a little but not too much,” he continued.
Since the presidential election, José has also seen and felt a rising fear among Latinos. His friends and colleagues worry Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will stop them at any moment.
“One hundred percent there is more fear. If someone says that Immigration is in Newport, it becomes a desert,” said José.
At St. Joseph’s Church in Newport, Father Ray Malm has worked with the Hispanic congregation for the past ten years. He is officially retired, but he maintains an active role within the church community, often conducting baptisms and first communions in Spanish. In recent months, Malm has organized meetings at St. Joseph’s to provide more information to members worried about immigration crackdowns, and attendance has been high.
“We get a pretty good response from people even if there’s fear out there,” said Malm. “People know that the reason we are having meetings is to take care of them and to show them the best way to live their life,” he continued.
It’s hard to get reliable numbers on the size of Newport’s Hispanic and undocumented population. The Pew Center estimated there were 30,000 unauthorized workers across Rhode Island in 2014.
According to Malm, St. Joseph’s has made the commitment to support its undocumented congregants no matter what happens at the federal level. “We will do everything we can to help people,” he said. “No matter what it entails, we will do it,” Malm continued.
Immigration attorney, Hans Bremer said that since President Trump began talking about mass deportations of undocumented immigrants, he and his associates have been overwhelmed with clients. He said that one of the main concerns is what to do if ICE knocks at their door.
“We tell all our clients, don’t open the door, speak to them through the window or talk to them through the door,” Bremer said.
“And if they don’t have a warrant, you do not have to let them in,” he said. “You don’t have to give them ID, you don’t have to answer any of the questions, you have the right to remain completely silent and just stay there,” Bremer continued.
For now, while some people like Maria may decide to leave, others like José will stay and continue to work, with or without authorization.