LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
They say the best place to get tacos in Buffalo, N.Y., is a Mexican restaurant called La Divina. But this is not a restaurant review. It's a story about one of the biggest immigration worksite raids in recent years. In October, federal agents swooped down on La Divina and three other restaurants. They arrested the owner and hauled off his whole undocumented workforce. And as NPR's John Burnett reports, some people are asking if the operation was fair.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: It was 9:30 the morning of October 18. The staff at La Divina was making salsa, grilling chicken and stocking the shelves with Mexican Cokes and Corona beer. Suddenly, agents from Homeland Security Investigations rushed in.
JOSE ANTONIO RAMOS: (Speaking Spanish)
BURNETT: "I heard someone shouting - don't move, don't move. It was ICE," says Jose Antonio Ramos, a 29-year-old Mexican cook working illegally. ICE stands for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "I was in shock. I was complying with their orders, but they were mistreating us," he says. "They pointed guns at our heads. They pushed us on the floor and handcuffed us. They brought in dogs."
RAMOS: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: Fourteen workers have been charged with civil and criminal immigration violations. Twelve workers were in the country illegally, but they were released because they didn't meet the government's enforcement priorities. The restaurant's owner is Sergio Mucino, a 42-year-old legal permanent resident from Mexico City. He and his two managers are charged with harboring undocumented immigrants. The federal criminal complaint alleges the trio provided them housing and transportation, paid them in cash off the books and avoided income taxes.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BURNETT: During a recent lunch rush, we find Sergio Mucino behind the counter at La Divina making tacos. He says he cannot discuss the raid, but he's happy to talk about his menu.
SERGIO MUCINO: We try to offer authentic street tacos, make it more like a Mexican atmosphere - as close as we can to the Mexican tacos.
BURNETT: While Mucino is out on bail and is reopening his restaurants, most of his illegal workforce is out of a job and facing deportation, this despite the statements from the feds that they were targeting the abusive employer, not his employees. Over at the lunch counter, Jeff Dugan, who works at a local marketing company, is digging into a plate of chicken quesadillas. He supports the immigration raid.
JEFF DUGAN: I want the workers to be in good, you know, standing and then that they're working under our laws and that they're taken care of because when they're not, you know, they get put in subpar housing. And they're getting underpaid and overworked. I feel bad for them.
BURNETT: Thirteen hours a day, six days a week are what Jose Antonio Ramos and his co-workers put in. They earned the equivalent of $6.50 an hour, below the federal minimum wage.
RAMOS: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: "I guess my only complaint would be the long hours," he says. But you need to make money to eat and take care of your family. You have no choice. Ramos wears an electronic ankle monitor and faces a civil violation for overstaying a work visa.
The city has rallied around the Buffalo restaurant workers. Churches are supporting them while they await their immigration hearings. There have been demonstrations outside the ICE office and a local petition asking federal authorities to let the workers go. An ICE spokesman defends the raid. He says they focused on Mucino. But during the course of the investigation, they learned some workers had re-entered the country after being deported, which is a felony.
But are those violations a reason for federal agents to storm a restaurant kitchen with handguns drawn and police dogs?
NICOLE HALLETT: It's really small potatoes. It really did shock this community. I think it shocked the national immigrant rights community.
BURNETT: Nicole Hallett is an immigration law professor at the University of Buffalo. She's representing four of the workers.
HALLETT: But most of the time when someone gets charged with criminal re-entry, it's because they have other criminal history. So they very rarely will indict someone for criminal re-entry if that is the only thing that they have.
BURNETT: Under George W. Bush, worksite sweeps were common. Obama has mostly taken a more low-key approach, such as auditing employer records. But a top ICE official in Washington, who asked not to be named, says raids like Buffalo have to be conducted now and again to send a chilling effect to employers who exploit their workers. Nicole Hallett says these raids can easily backfire.
HALLETT: If one of your goals is to protect workers from exploitation, obviously, arresting the workers as part of that enforcement action makes workers very afraid to come forward and report if there's exploitation happening.
BURNETT: Obama's homeland security team will be gone soon, and there will be a new sheriff in town. President-elect Trump and his advisers have talked about cracking down on unauthorized immigrants and the job magnets that attract them. It's reasonable to ask if the Buffalo restaurant raid will become the norm rather than the exception.
John Burnett, NPR News, Buffalo.
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