Travel ban only feeds our fears

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Today’s revision of a draconian executive order that bans travelers from six majority-Muslim countries is an attempt to sanitize an earlier attempt to close our doors to immigrants and turn off the lamp of hope for refugees seeking to reach our shores. This new order will reduce the number of refugees allowed to enter the United States from 110,000 to 50,000.

Whether or not this new order will pass muster in our court system, one of the unintended consequences of this latest attack on our immigrant population — alongside the president’s previous executive guidance on undocumented immigrants — will be a closing down of some of our favorite ethnic eateries.

Refugees are cooking in our kitchens, sharing the tastes and flavors of home with our community. The new ban will also impact our close-in farm culture that has provided so many families with the benefits and nutrition of locally grown fruits and vegetables.

In Washington the enforcement of deportation and detention by the  will severely impact the local food industry. More than 2,000 restaurants feed our political class. Although it is a crime to employ illegal aliens, it is the workers who bear the brunt of these actions. If restaurants and farms no longer have access to labor to help cook and serve food or plant and harvest its crops, it is our city that loses.

{mosads}The Day without Immigrants, a sui generis movement on social media, led to the closing of 59 prime eateries in February. This was only a dress rehearsal for a larger event that is being planned for May 1 by Cosecha, an immigrant advocacy group.


Washington may be a Michelin City, but long before the stars aligned on our food scene, it was always a place of “conflict cuisines.” One of the best-kept secrets of our nation’s capital is that each new war brought to our city new ethnic restaurants: Vietnamese, Afghan, Ethiopian and Central American. All were founded by immigrants with hopes and dreams of seeking a new beginning. These cuisines reflected Cold War upheavals where the United States was involved.

Washington may have suffered from a shortage of haute cuisines, but our communities could always find pho or pupusas, thus tasting the world and meeting its diaspora by expanding their palates, if not their waistlines.

In the late 1980s, then-Sen. Wyche Fowler (D-Ga.), once jokingly told a local magazine editor that he hoped for the day when the Soviets would send tanks down the Champs-Élysées so Washington could finally get a decent French restaurant.

One of the consequences of 9/11 was a more restrictive immigration policy for people coming from the Middle East and Central Asia. Now we are about to experience even more severe restrictions with the announcement of immigration enforcement that will spare no costs to capture every single person who has crossed our borders illegally; even those who are seeking asylum may be at risk.

As wars continue in the Syria, Yemen and Iraq, our own response to the horrific acts is to be more reclusive than inclusive, and ironically the diversity of our dining scene is becoming an unintended consequence of our new focus on homeland security. Many Washingtonians don’t even realize that often it is Central American immigrants who cook the cuisines of Vietnam and Afghanistan in restaurants. But new diasporas are more of an exception today than they were during the Cold War.

For immigrants of war-torn societies, restaurants remain a source of income; a way to make a new start while also providing people with a taste of home. Even when returning home was not an option, the food is the connection that keeps a culture alive. One sociologist has called these restaurants “living rooms of the homesick.” We in Washington have been fortunate to be allowed into these personal spaces, while also being able to transform our own parochial tastes with the spices and aromas of distant lands.

Gulf War and Iraq War veterans flock to Iraqi-owned kabob houses in Fairfax to evoke a food memory of time in the field, while also using these food experiences as a way to deal with the memories of their combat and those foreign nationals who served them. What would happen if some of these eateries closed down after it was discovered that the owner or cooks were being deported?

The American food industry employs close to 25 percent of our workforce. And we know that what we eat and put on our table is mainly dependent on the immigrant labor, often undocumented, that harvests our fields, cooks our dinners and moves our products to market. Continued raids and arrests could ultimately have a chilling effect on a business that is at the heart of the foodie world of Washington.

Chefs and restaurant owners are becoming political actors. These businessmen possess the soft power to coerce our temporary residents — congressional leaders and presidential appointees — to learn how vital a fair and well-conceived immigration policy is to the survival of our growing culinary scene. Chefs are no longer standing in the kitchen, but using their kitchens as a new venue for politics and foreign policy.

Spanish Chef José Andrés, the Washington-based leader of this growing movement using restaurants as platforms for action, said it best when he told a recent conference of food advocates that “eating has become a political statement.” You can use food to start a conversation, but the one we need now is among those who value our nation’s gastronomic diversity to open a path toward rational immigration reform.

Coming around the table, we can educate our leaders that our food industry’s ability to flourish depends on the hard work of immigrants who toil in the kitchens and on our farms.

Johanna Mendelson Forman is a senior adviser at the Stimson Center‘s Managing Across Boundaries initiative and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service, where she teaches “Conflict Cuisine.”

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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