The day immigration authorities came for Piro Garcia, a popular taco truck owner in Houston, Anai Romero's worst fears were realized.
She had never met her real dad, and Garcia, her stepfather, was the only father figure she'd ever had. Her mother was undocumented as well, and so Romero and her sister grew up with the unsettling knowledge that they could come home to find both their parents gone.
It happened last month. Garcia was preparing to open his taco truck for breakfast when Immigration and Customs Enforcement surrounded him like he was a dangerous criminal and placed him in handcuffs. They brought him to a detention center in Houston.
“It's hard to talk about,” 24-year-old Romero said. “I'm one of those people who would rather walk around with a smiling face while knowing that everything is falling apart. I've been trying to figure out, what can I do? My parents are not from here — I totally understand that. But my parents are not alone. They've been here for so many years. They pay taxes like everybody else.”
Piro Garcia — whose formal name is Armando Garcia Mendez — came to the United States in 1994, fleeing enlistment in the Guatemalan army during that country's civil war. After being captured by Border Patrol, he was deported — yet came back that very same year, fearing that if Guatemalan authorities got a hold of him he would be killed for deserting the army, something that happened to people he knew, said his attorney, Raed Gonzalez.
For the next 23 years, Garcia worked his way up to become an entrepreneur. He has worked largely with the same people, some who call him a brother, ever since. Before he was detained, said his good friend and business partner, Robert Martinez, Garcia helped run a catering business, Max Gray Productions, and helped organize food service at nearly every major festival and event in the Houston area: Art in the Park, Free Press Summer Fest, Whatever Fest, Tomball German Festival. Every Tuesday, on Steak Night, you could find him working at Griff's Irish Pub, and he'd most certainly be there for St. Patrick's Day weekend, Martinez said. He helped develop menus and the kitchen staff at bars Martinez had a hand in developing, such as Lucky's Pub in the Heights. And on weekends, Garcia worked late into the mornings as a DJ at events and parties around Houston.
All while operating two taco trucks.
“He's probably the hardest working guy I've ever met in my life,” said Martinez. “He's met almost every mayor since he's been here, from working so many events for the City of Houston. All of these people have been touched, from behind the scenes, unknowingly, by this guy who has worked so hard to make these events successful. It's just unfathomable what we're trying to deal with to try to get him out.”
Friends from Griff's and all around town have raised nearly $9,500 to go toward Garcia's legal defense, and his attorney, Gonzalez, says he's been getting calls nonstop from people wondering how they can help the longtime pillar of the Houston community.
Garcia's case will be tough, Gonzalez said — but he still has a fighting chance. He is considered a priority by the Trump administration because he had already been deported once in 1994 and also has misdemeanors on his record from that time period. Twenty years ago, when he was 21, he got a DWI, and more than 15 years ago pleaded no contest to assault for pushing his ex-wife, Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said that none are deportable offenses on their own or are crimes of moral turpitude, like stealing, that would require pardons. Yet because the Trump administration has strayed from the Obama administration's focus on only serious criminals, opening up the possibility of deportation to nearly every class of undocumented immigrant, Garcia's success as a taxpaying small business owner with American children does not matter to ICE.
“Under Trump, everybody's game,” Gonzalez said. “Piro falls in the same category as a murderer.”
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Gonzalez said Garcia's best shot at a stay of deportation is to prove he has a reasonable fear of returning to Guatemala. If immigration authorities are not swayed that it is “reasonable enough,” Gonzalez said, then he will be deported and not be allowed to apply to return to the U.S. for 10 to 20 years. “Can you imagine having a family relationship over the phone and Skype?” Gonzalez said.
His stepdaughter, Anai, said that her mother has been working 15-hour days to run both taco trucks by herself. She wakes up at 5 a.m. to get ready to serve breakfast, working into the evening for lunch and dinner, then will need to purchase and prepare more ingredients for the next day's work at night.
Once per week, she heads to the Houston Contract Detention Facility, where her dad is being held. There, he works from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m. in the kitchen for volunteer work, trying to keep his life as familiar as possible. He is not allowed to touch or hug his family and friends. They can only come once per week, for one hour.
“Every visit is difficult,” Romero said. “Just the fact that you need to make an appointment to see your dad.”