Great Barrington, Massachusetts – Until this fall, Albaro Francisco was living the classic American dream: A penniless immigrant, he came to this country as a teenager, worked hard, made his way up the economic ladder and became the owner of a successful business. Seemingly, he had a great future.
It seemed that everyone around Great Barrington, a village of 4,500 in the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts, knew him or knew of him, from high-school students – he was a frequent deejay for school dances – to the organizers of charitable events to which he donated his talents as a chef and disc jockey.
It was not surprising that Francisco had become so well known. He had lived in the town since he was 16, had worked at numerous restaurants and had, by all accounts, an outgoing and generous nature.
Two years ago, Albaro and his cousin Pascual Francisco, who had accompanied him to the United States from their native Oaxaca, Mexico, bought a take-out burrito shop in the Atrium, the restaurant-lined hallway that links the Triplex Cinema parking lot with Main Street. They renamed the shop Taqueria Azteca, and its popularity grew.
Across the hall were Club Helsinki and the Helsinki Tea Company, where both Pascual and Albaro had once worked in the kitchen.
And even before it became generally known that Helsinki complex, a popular music venue, would be closing at the end of August to relocate to nearby Hudson, New York, the cousins from Oaxaca were making plans to remodel it into the Monte Alban Mexican Restaurant. Pascual’s mother was planning a trip to the Berkshires to train the staff on how to make the special Oaxacan salsas. And Albaro was planning a series of Latino concerts at the new restaurant.
Over the years, Pascual Francisco had methodically attended to his immigration status, eventually becoming a US citizen. He had also earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts and a master’s in business administration from Pace University.
But Albaro, 38, had a secret, known only to Pascual and his American-born wife: All these years, he was undocumented.
“I told Albaro many times that he should take care of his own situation rather than trying to help others all the time,” Pascual recalled, sitting at a table amid the still-under-renovation chaos of his new restaurant. “He squandered $20,000 on lawyers in New York who promised to help him get a green card, and they didn’t help at all. In fact, they put false information on his application.”
What Pascual didn’t realize was that, although Albaro had been seeking a green card that would have allowed him to work in the United States, he had twice appeared before an immigration court judge, pledging to leave the country voluntarily.
Albaro, according to his cousin, even went back to Mexico on one occasion to visit his sick parents. Then he returned, even though he had promised an immigration judge that he would leave.
In the eyes of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division of the Homeland Security Agency, Albaro became “broken,” a fugitive.
His status finally caught up with him on the evening of Thursday, September 24.
The dimly lit Atrium was nearly empty at 11 o’clock that Thursday night. Albaro Francisco was alone in the Azteca kitchen, preparing items for the next day’s menu, when immigration agents showed up at the restaurant window. They weren’t there to order quesadillas. They seized him, and in the domestic equivalent of extraordinary rendition, sped him off to a jail in Norfolk, Massachusetts, near Boston.
At first, his friends and family didn’t know what had happened to him. He had simply vanished.
But within a few days, inquiries by the Berkshire Immigration Center in Pittsfield, the Berkshire county seat, revealed that Albaro was in jail, awaiting a deportation hearing.
“This happens every day, in every state,” explained an exasperated Brooke Mead, program coordinator for the immigrant center. “There are 12 to 20 million undocumented immigrants who have no way out right now, no pathway to citizenship. Most of them are just like Albaro Francisco – upstanding citizens, hard-working. And besides them, there are 3.1 million children whose parents are undocumented.”
The number of immigrants moving to Berkshire County is significant, explains David Paul of the South Berkshire Educational Collaborative, which offers educational support to immigrants, both students and adults. He points out that the rural Berkshires are second only to Boston in the influx of immigrants, as a percentage of population.
“I have 175 clients right now,” Paul said. “Half of them are undocumented, facing the same situation as Albaro’s. These individuals work hard, and they pay taxes. Businesses here would collapse without them. They are not taking jobs away from local people; they are working at jobs no one else will do at such low pay. We need a positive, realistic compassionate immigrant policy.”
The news of Albaro’s arrest and pending deportation shocked the Great Barrington community. Within a week, hundreds of signatures appeared on a petition at Fuel coffee shop on Main Street supporting Albaro Francisco and appealing to the immigration authorities not to deport him.
Mead reported that her agency had been “swamped” with inquiries about Albaro and offers of assistance. Many callers, she said, were outraged that the government could treat a member of the community with such callousness.
She noted that undocumented immigrants comprise 5 percent of the American workforce.
“These are contributing members of our community,” she pointed out. “We have to realize that while there is an outpouring of support for Albaro, there are many, many others, just as deserving as he is, who are in the same situation. And most Americans want to create a way for these immigrants to become citizens and not to tear families apart. To immigrants, we are the dream. It’s unbelievable that we have laws that punish those who believe that America is the land of opportunity”
On a sunny Saturday morning in early October, a small crowd packed a theater at the Triplex Cinema to express support for Albaro Francisco and push for immigration reform.
“The whole immigration issue is way out of control,” declared Richard Stanley, owner of the cinema complex and as owner of the Barrington House, the landlord to Albaro and Pascual.
“The government is not realizing that the emperor has no clothes,” Stanley told the crowd. “I’ve known Albaro for many, many years. What is a real American? Isn’t it someone who pulls himself up by his bootstraps and succeeds? Albaro exemplifies the best of this American quality – as does his cousin Pascual.”
Gwendolyn VanSant, the executive director of Berkshire Resource for the Integration of Diverse Groups and Education, called the treatment of Francisco and other undocumented immigrants “a human rights issue.”
“To call people ‘illegal’ is to dehumanize them,” she said.
Sam Levin, a senior at Monument Mountain Regional High School, who had organized a petition drive among high school students on Francisco’s behalf, explained how Francisco had helped teach him Spanish and bought produce for his restaurant from Project Sprout, the local student-run garden.
“Albaro was a part of our school, and the deejay for our dances,” he said. “His potential deportation is a pretty ugly mark on the US.”
But despite the fervor of the assembly, it was already too late.
In a proceeding accelerated to avoid the very kind of publicity and political pressure the Triplex rally represented, immigration officials had already deported Albaro. According to Pascual, they had flown him to the California-Mexico border and dumped him off in Tijuana, leaving it to him to find his way south to Oaxaca.
“They sent him already,” Pascual told the rally audience. “You might say, he’ll be working on the Monte Alban Mexican Restaurant from home. But there is a way of bringing him back. He is not banned completely from returning to the United States, but it will take time, perhaps two years.”
The rally itself, plus the petitions and letters to US Rep. John W. Olver (D-Massachusetts) and to ICE regional headquarters in Burlington, Vermont, could be important testimonials on Albaro’s behalf in support of his petition to be readmitted to the United States.
Albaro’s rapid deportation came as no surprise to the Immigrant Center’s Mead.
“There are too many immigration statutes that will prevent him from being released and allowed to stay,” she explained. “There are no clauses for relief that he qualifies for, and the only way for him to obtain relief from immigration law is for a private bill on his behalf to be passed in Congress. I’ve been told that in the past 18 years, there have only been three such bills approved.”
She added, “We need comprehensive reform. The system is broken.”
Richard Delmasto, the immigration specialist in Olver’s Pittsfield office agreed.
“This is not a test case, unfortunately,” he said. “For a private bill to pass, Albaro would have to have a clear background and extraordinary circumstances, but his violation of immigration law won’t allow that. This is exactly why we need immigration reform, which the congressman supports.”
Mead also cast doubt on whether Francisco could ever return to his home in the Berkshires.
“It will depend on what the inadmissibility issues are,” she said. “Does he have the ability to overcome them? An American spouse or a child would be good assets, but it will take, at least, two, three, perhaps four years.”
Back at his future restaurant, Pascual looks about at the booths and tables taking shape that will eventually accommodate 92 patrons once the renovation is completed by the first of the year.
“Believe me,” he declares, with a wave of his hand, “I’m not going to give this up. In America, if you push it, you can accomplish anything.”
He explained that he had recently visited Albaro back in Oaxaca.
“He’s depressed, there is very little work there,” he said. “And he feels that the US is his home.
“My life is involved in such a big paradox,” Pascual went on. “I’ve spent 22 years in the US. In a little while, I’m going back to Mexico to bring my parents up here. My mother makes Oaxacan salsa. She knows how. My parents have green cards and can live here if they wish. But they don’t want to. My mother doesn’t like the cold. Albaro wants to live here but he has problems with the green card.”
“We need a broader vision of what our continent is – the Americas include South and Central America, too,” noted Anaelisa Vanagen, a Berkshire community activist immigrant from Peru and a friend of Albaro’s. “Besides Albaro, there are so many others, so many others. We want to come out of the shadows.”