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Economy & Business

Milwaukee Sanctuary Restaurant Provides a Safe Space

amalinda_inside.jpg
Marti Mikkelson
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Amilinda in downtown Milwaukee

Since President Trump’s crackdown on unauthorized immigrants, we’ve been hearing more about sanctuary cities, counties and even school districts. Those are entities that limit their cooperation with federal immigration agents. Now, another location labels itself as a safe haven: Amilinda, a restaurant in downtown Milwaukee that specializes in Spanish and Portuguese food.

As you approach Amilinda on East Wisconsin Avenue, you notice the sign on the door reading, “Sanctuary Restaurant – a place at the table for everyone.” What does that declaration mean? I decided to ask a few diners.

Carmen Fernandez is enjoying a meal with her husband. To her, sanctuary denotes a place free from harassment, especially for unauthorized immigrants.

“If you’re with papers or not, the fact that nobody is going to come and ask you for that, it’s nice. Some things have a time and place and when you go out, it’s not a place for that kind of business to be done, so I like that they stand for that,”she says.

Fernandez says she came to the Milwaukee area from Spain more than two decades ago and it took her many years to obtain U.S. citizenship. She says, during that time, she kept a low profile and can relate to what unauthorized immigrants are experiencing today.

“The city has plenty of cultures and we want them out and proud and not hiding in corners and scared,” Fernandez says.

“We’re a safe space," Gregory Leon, says. He's co-owner and chef at Amilinda. “We don’t tolerate any sexism or misogyny or racism, homophobia or anything like that within the four walls of our restaurant, we work with our staff to make sure we are all on the same page."

amalinda_outside.jpg
Credit Marti Mikkelson
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The sign in the right hand corner indicates that Amilinda is a sanctuary restaurant.

Leon and his partner opened the restaurant in 2015, yet he says he just put the sanctuary sign on the door in January after President Trump proposed a travel ban against several countries with primarily Muslim populations.

“We shouldn’t let stuff like religion or politics get in the way of being decent human beings,” he says.

Leon says his family comes from Venezuela and he still has relatives there – who would like to reside here someday. He says he supports a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally, and is not taking advantage of the situation in the meantime.

“We’ve had a lot of nasty comments like oh, they’ve become a sanctuary restaurant because they want the free publicity, or they’ve become a sanctuary restaurant because they want to hire illegals with no papers and pay them less because people without papers can’t go complain and that’s just not the case,” he says.

"This is not a place you can run to if ICE is following you and wants to arrest you. We just wanted to create an environment where people can come, regardless of their religion or sexual orientation or race and they can sit down, have a nice meal."

Leon says everybody who works at his restaurant either was born here or has a green card. And he says his eatery is not a place for people to hide.

“No, and again I think that’s a big misconception. This is not a place you can run to if ICE is following you and wants to arrest you. We just wanted to create an environment where people can come, regardless of their religion or sexual orientation or race and they can sit down, have a nice meal,” Leon says.

That farm-to-table cuisine and welcoming atmosphere are what attracted customers Jacob Lankin and Sergio Sardino. Lankin is sitting at the bar, drinking beer and noshing on a steak.

“It holds a great meaning toward the people and also those who work in it. To me, it means a great place to go to,” Lankin says.

Sardino is enjoying a meal with his grandfather, who hails from Columbia. “It’s really great to have a place that’s been here for a few years and successful and able to support the Hispanic community and cater to their downtown clients as well,” he says.

There’s at least one other establishment in Milwaukee that calls itself a sanctuary, The National Café on the south side.

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