Prominent Palm Beach restaurant manager faces risk of deportation


A prominent Palm Beach restaurant manager with no criminal record, a U.S. citizen spouse and three U.S. born children could be deported this week under President Donald Trump’s new immigration policy — a situation that has led to an online petition that has drawn close to 5,000 signatures in four days.

Francisco Javier Gonzalez, the manager of the Pizza Al Fresco restaurant, was born in Mexico and is known in the community by his middle name, Javier. He is scheduled to check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in Broward County on July 14 — a date he fears could alter the life he has built in America.
Former Apple, Pepsi CEO John Sculley joins Gonzalez’s cause

Until this year, the annual check-in has been little more than a routine measure for Gonzalez. But under Trump’s expanded immigration policy, the once routine check-ins have become high stakes for immigrants like Gonzalez living in the United States.

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“The last time, it was simple,” Gonzalez said. “This time, my lawyer is concerned. A lot of people have been detained who have my same problem.”

Gonzalez, 36, has lived in Palm Beach County for two decades, and spent the last nine years working at the landmark restaurant on Palm Beach’s Worth Avenue. Gonzalez has served many Palm Beach socialites and local celebrities, including the likes of Trump’s family, according to Richard Hujber, a Boynton Beach immigration attorney who is representing Gonzalez.

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A 2013 photo on his Facebook page shows two of Gonzalez’s daughters posing with television host Hoda Kotb in the restaurant’s courtyard.

“A lot of the Palm Beach elite are his customers,” Hujber said. “This is a guy who is really well known and really well regarded. Everyone loves him. He is such a bright personality and a happy go lucky guy who treats everyone so well.”

Gonzalez came to Palm Beach County when he was 15 years old to live with his brother using what he thought was a valid visa.

After graduating high school, he returned to Mexico in 2001 to visit his parents. When he came back to South Florida, Gonzalez was told at the airport that the visa was not valid. He was deported and issued an “expedited order of removal,” which banned him from returning to the U.S. for a 5-year period, Hujber said. Gonzalez returned to the U.S. illegally within the time frame, Hujber said.

“When he came back again, that is the problem,” Hujber said. “That is what makes this case more difficult.”

Gonzalez was issued an “administrative stay of deportation” in 2016, and has been routinely checking-in with ICE officials in Broward County ever since.

In an emailed statement Friday, ICE pointed to Gonzalez’s 2001 deportation, saying those in violation of U.S. immigration laws are subject to detention and deportation.

“Francisco Javier Gonzalez was removed from the country on December 14, 2001 and subsequently re-entered the country illegally,” ICE said. “As Secretary Kelly has made clear, ICE will no longer exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement. All of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States.”

Gonzalez married his wife, Tara, a U.S. citizen in 2006. He started working at Pizza Al Fresco, a well-known restaurant just minutes from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club, about in 2009. The couple has three daughters ages, 5, 7, and 10. They live in West Palm Beach.

Gonzalez said he began looking for an immigration lawyer to take his case shortly after he got married. Since then, Gonzalez has obtained permits allowing him to work legally.

But after nearly a decade, he is still waiting for a waiver that would provide more permanent status ahead of obtaining a green card, which would give him legal permanent residency.

Still, Gonzalez was so worried about his immigration status that he would ride his bike from his West Palm Beach home to the Palm Beach restaurant because he was concerned about being pulled over, Hujber said.  

“He is not a criminal,” Hujber said. “He is not a bad guy.”  

In early 2016, ICE officials granted Gonzalez the deportation stay, and said they would not “pursue” his removal while the order was in place. As part of that decision, Gonzalez is required to check-in with ICE officials once a year.  

“At that time, they were sympathetic to his situation,” Hujber said.  

But during a routine check-in earlier this year, Gonzalez was told he would have to return to the Broward County ICE office in three months for another check-in, at which point he could face deportation.

In advance of the July 14 check-in, Hujber, posted a petition on Change.org, in an effort to raise awareness about the case. As of Monday afternoon, the petition had nearly 5,000 signatures.

Hujber hopes to win Gonzalez an interview with ICE officials in Miami, where he plans to argue that the family would be in a dire situation if they are forced to return to Gonzalez’s hometown of Jalisco, Mexico. The town, Hujber said, has become a hotbed for drug cartels.  

“If he goes back there, as far as I can tell the family is going with him,” Hujber said. “It is a very close-knit family.”  

Hujber said Gonzalez’s three young daughters could be at risk.  

“It is like wearing an X on your chest if you are as blond and American as this family is,” he said.

Jose Duran, general manager of Renato’s, Pizza Al Fresco and Al Fresco at the Palm Beach Par 3, said Gonzalez is “the most reliable human being we’ve ever had work for us.”

Gonzalez started at the restaurant as waiter and quickly worked his way up, Duran said.

“The bottom line is he truly cares about the people that come to Pizza Al Fresco,” Duran said. “He makes you feel at home and genuinely cares that you have a nice time and that everything goes well. He’s been a huge part of the restaurant’s success. To lose him would mean sadness for everyone who has anything to do with Pizza Al Fresco. I can’t fathom it happening. It would be devastating.”

Duran said he was “surprised” when he learned about Gonzalez’s plight.  

“He’s one of the greatest examples of someone who immigrates to the U.S. and does something beautiful and adds to the community,” Duran said. “He’s a beautiful soul, dedicated worker, father and husband. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone as genuine and deserving of the things he’s accomplished as Javier.”  

Palm Beach resident Tatiana Platt, whose children attend school with two of Gonzalez’s daughters, said he is a doting husband and father who is very active in school activities.  

“He is always ready to volunteer at school functions and is a role model for many of our children that know him,” Platt said. “He is a valuable member of our community and always trying to be of service to our families and school.”

Gonzalez said he is hopeful immigration officials will take the petition into consideration. “I think I’m going to be okay,” he said.

But Gonzalez said he is always concerned when he travels to Miami for his annual check-ins. “I am always afraid when I go in there, but I always have hope and faith,” he said.



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