JP Caceres had resigned himself to going back to his na-tive Bolivia after the first three weeks he spent at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Farmville, Va. The mixologist, who’s created recent cocktail menus for Del Campo and MXDC, was losing nearly a pound a day, living off bologna sandwiches and soy meat. To pass the time, he read books, worked out, watched TV, and played cards or dominoes for ramen noodles. One of only a few English speakers, he helped fellow detainees translate paperwork. He slept with no pillow in a big room with dozens of other undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation.
“You’re a number. I was dorm six, bed number 69,” says Caceres, who landed in the immigration detention center following an arrest for allegedly threatening a cab driver. “You can’t share your story, because everybody has a story there.”
The only thing that kept him going, Caceres says, was that he’d have the chance to see his mom in Bolivia. He hasn’t seen her since he first came to the U.S. 13 years ago on a visitor’s visa that was good for only six months, which Caceres overstayed. He applied to become a legal permanent resident in 2004, when he married his then-wife, but his petition was denied in 2008 when they got divorced. In 2010, an immigration judge granted Caceres “voluntary departure,” which expired and turned into a “final order of removal” in February 2011.
But during his years here, Caceres had worked his way up from a barback at Zaytinya to one of the most respected mixologists in the city. He now has his own company, Let’s Imbibe Beverage Consulting, and is president of the D.C. chapter of the U.S. Bartenders Guild. He felt he had too much to lose. So he decided to stay.
Caceres is far from the only one in his position in the D.C. restaurant world. Although few receive the publicity his case has, there are plenty of stories around town similar to Caceres’. “It’s hard work, and it’s a hard life,” his immigration attorney Andres Benach says. “That is an industry dominated by immigrants who are willing to put in long hours, often for not very much pay. I know that restaurants really depend on them.”
There’s something of an inside joke among Washington restaurateurs that the staff size always drops when the president dines at your establishment. Why? If the visit is planned in advance, the Secret Service conducts background checks on employees and will uncover anyone working illegally.
Even without a presidential visit, ICE also conducts its own audits of restaurants, verifying employee information on I-9 forms against official government databases. ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen says all the audits are based on tips or other intelligence. The agency doesn’t conduct random checks. The number of audits nationally has more than doubled over the last five years, from 1,444 in 2009 to 3,127 in 2013. ICE doesn’t break those numbers down by region or by industry, so it’s unclear how many local restaurants have been audited. Christensen says ICE doesn’t target any particular types of businesses, although there is a priority on “critical infrastructure” sites that might have some connection to national security, like airports. (Presumably, D.C. bars and restaurants don’t meet that criteria.)
Christensen attributes the upswing in audits to a change in ICE’s strategy over the last five years. Under the George W. Bush administration, raids and worker arrests were a standard component of immigration enforcement. Barack Obama’s administration has increased employer audits and fines instead of raids.
Chipotle famously came under scrutiny by ICE in 2011. The agency audited about 60 shops in D.C. and Virginia as part of a national investigation of the Mexican fast casual chain, which resulted in several hundred firings across the country, including at least 40 locally. And last year, ICE found that more than 100 unauthorized workers—including bussers, servers, and cooks—at Clyde’s in Gallery Place. The Washington Post reported that about half of those employees didn’t return to work when they were informed of the audit and asked to submit new documentation. The restaurant worked with the Department of Homeland Security to help update the paperwork for the others, or prove that they could legally work.
Those audits are aimed at punishing employers who hire undocumented workers, rather than the employees. Restaurants face fines, which can vary in size depending on how many undocumented workers they have and ICE’s perception of whether they made the hires wilfully or got snookered by false documents. Nationally, ICE issued $15.8 million in fines to businesses with undocumented workers last year. In 2009, that number totaled just over $1 million.
Benach says the fines can go up into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for larger businesses with lots of illegal hires. But normally, he says fines for restaurants aren’t more than $50,000 to $100,000, and most he’s seen are in the $10,000 to $20,000 range.
Most restaurant owners do their best to abide by the law, Benach says, and when a prospective employee presents a document that looks real, “they are not supposed to second guess that.” He says it’s still a minority of businesses that intentionally hire undocumented workers or turn a blind eye. “Generally, they’re not very nice places to work,” he says. Christensen adds: “We certainly don’t expect employers to be forensic document experts. We expect employers to follow the law and make every reasonable effort.”
Cava restaurant group CEO Brett Schulman says his restaurants have never been audited by ICE, but they’re nonetheless looking at new HR platforms with e-verification that would allow them to confirm Social Security numbers or other employee information against national databases. “It takes the onus off of us,” Schulman says. “There’s some subjectivity as to the documentation you’re given. Is it proper? Is it good enough? So this is a third party verification.”
If employees aren’t authorized to work, restaurants have little choice but to fire them, although ICE doesn’t directly enforce that. Benach says he recently worked with a restaurant he declines to name that had to fire some people it learned were undocumented. “It was a tragedy watching people, who had worked there for a decade and really put a lot of love and effort into working there, have to lose their jobs,” he says. Then a week later, he saw one of them at another restaurant across town. “It’s like water; you squeeze one place and it comes out another place.”
Assuming they don’t have an outstanding warrant or a history of legal troubles, most undocumented workers likely won’t face other consequences. In D.C., if an undocumented immigrant gets pulled over for a traffic violation or if they’re involved in an incident that doesn’t land them at the police station, authorities are not supposed to refer them to immigration officers. But if they do get arrested, they can end up in ICE custody.
That’s what happened to Caceres. He landed in the Farmville immigration detention center after an arrest on Dec. 19 for allegedly threatening a cab driver with an ice pick. (Caceres wouldn’t comment about the incident, while Benach says, “I’m fairly hopeful that what seems like a fairly silly misunderstanding doesn’t turn into a major problem.”)
Three weeks into his detention, Caceres’ friend Anna Duff came to visit. “He was very depressed. He’d lost weight. His skin was kind of gray,” she says. “He wanted to go home.” But she helped to convince him not to give up. “She picked me up from the floor saying, ‘No, we’re going to fight it one more time. You’ve got to do it. There’s nothing for you to lose. Think of all the people who love you out there,” Caceres says.
To help Caceres with his legal fees, Duff created a crowdfunding campaign dubbed “Operation Free JP” on GoFundMe.com. It went viral; so far, about 250 people have contributed more than $17,000.
Caceres still faces deportation, but last Thursday, he was released from the detention center. Immigrants whom ICE determines don’t pose a significant threat to public safety can be released under the agency’s Alternatives to Detention program. (Caceres has to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet on his ankle.) Benach says Caceres’ release was “not very common,” especially considering he has a final order of removal. But “he has a lot of support in the community, and that counts for a lot,” Benach says.
After dealing with his legal issues, Caceres says he hopes to be more active in helping other immigrants. “We have a lot of barbacks that are immigrants, and those barbacks are the next bartenders,” he says. “I trained many of them. That was me.” And like him, some are fellow undocumented workers, although most do their best to conceal that fact.
“Not having a status is such a secret thing, because the system pretty much puts you in a corner,” he says. “We all came here for one reason and it was to immigrate and have a better life. So now that’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to fight.”
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