BUFFALO, N.Y. - Following the raids of four Mexican restaurants by federal agents last week, the focus of the public immediately turned to the U.S. Attorney's investigation, the criminal charges against the owner and his associates, and the status of the popular restaurants in Buffalo, Cheektowaga and Kenmore.
There headlines were bold: The U.S. Attorney's Office charged owner Sergio Mucino and two of his close partners with conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens. The government announced additional charges against six other people for illegal re-entry into the United States.
However, a closer look at the criminal complaint revealed another storyline. According to that document, Mucino and his partners owned nine apartments and two houses near the restaurants in order to house dozens of workers and their families, some of which were undocumented.
In light of those criminal charges against Mucino, the people living in his buildings now have no place to turn.
Local clergy members are now collaborating to find them temporary shelter. Drew Ludwig, the pastor at Lafayette Ave. Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, joined with Trinity Church's Matt Lincoln on Sunday afternoon to announce their intentions to accommodate as many of the families as possible.
"Their entire lives have been turned upside down, and families are at risk of being separated," Ludwig said. "A home a few were living in was turned upside down-- doors kicked in, drawers dumped, things like that."
Ludwig and Lincoln said it's their understanding some of the workers will appear in immigration court for preliminary hearings on Tuesday, in order to determine their immigration status. Many of them have children who were born here, making them United States citizens.
Members of clergy do not want to see those children placed in Social Services or foster care.
"We're just saying, here are some people who are part of our community, and they're in crisis," Lincoln said. "That's hard on everyone, and we all share that burden."
But Matthew L. Kolken, a Buffalo attorney with extensive trial experience in immigration law, said the government offers exemptions for people with family considerations, allowing them to even ultimately qualify for a green card.
"That's one of the principal considerations that the government is taking a look at," Kolken said. "They do not want to create orphans. And that's really what's happening if an individual is being deported and stripped away from their parental rights. It doesn't do anyone any favors."
Here's how the process works:
The Office of Chief Counsel, which prosecute cases for the Department of Homeland Security, first considers whether an individual meets the criteria for a deportation priority. Those individuals may include criminal aliens with recent violations of immigration law, or, in extreme cases, individuals with terrorist connections.
However, if a person doesn't qualify as a priority case, the government could deem him or her as a "cancellation of removal" case. In these cases, a judge could assess whether an individual's deportation would cause "exceptional or extremely unusual hardship" for a qualifying relative, according to Kolken.
"It really depends on what facts are present in the case," Kolken said. "And whether or not the law can be used to their advantage."
If the workers from the four Mexican restaurants do indeed appear in immigration court on Tuesday, as members of clergy suggested, they will not face immediate deportation.
"It's not like they're going to go into court on Tuesday and be taken away in shackles and put on a plane and flown back home," Kolken said. "They're entitled to due process of law, and that can take a number of months, if not years, to go from the beginning of the process to the end of the process."
Until then, a coalition of local churches has decided to embrace the families caught in limbo after last week's raids by federal agents. Pastor Ludwig said he believes the public often holds misconceptions about these types of situations.
He pointed to one specific case in particular. One of the restaurant workers, Ludwig said, originally came to the United States with a farm worker visa, anticipating a job in Georgia. However, that job never materialized, so he decided to travel north to Buffalo, where he had family in the Western New York area.
Now, he finds himself scrambling.
"When this raid happened, the original story was all about, 'where are we gonna get our tacos?' But there's something that is so much more important," Ludwig said, "which is, there are people here, who had a sense of stability, and now they don't know where they're going to live and how they're going to live."