They dined and detained.
Two plainclothes Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers ate breakfast at a restaurant bar while their colleagues arrested staff out back and in front of the eatery.
Four employees were arrested and detained by ICE agents at Sava’s in Ann Arbor, Mich. Wednesday morning, the restaurant’s owner, Sava Lelcaj said.
First, officers arrested an unsuspecting worker taking the trash out to a back alleyway.
Word of the arrest spread quickly throughout the restaurant’s kitchen, and three more workers fled through the front door out of fear of being arrested.
“They panicked,” Lelcaj said.
Outside the restaurant they were met by more ICE agents who arrested them because they could not immediately produce documents showing they can legally work in the United States.
“These guys are living under fear and there are enough stories of innocent people getting arrested that they freaked out and ran out the front door where they were apprehended,” Lelcaj said.
Two of the workers have already been released, and one more is expected to be released today. The fourth worker faces hurdles because he appears to have been working under an alias, Lelcaj said.
Lelcaj said the ICE agents targeted the restaurant to pursue an employee who was off-duty at the time.
The arrested workers were taken to ICE’s Detroit office.
Lelcaj said her company, Savco Hospitality, formally vets potential employees to make sure they can work legally in the United States.
“They all have proper documentation but unfortunately there are things that are out of our reach. They go through an immigration vetting process so that we are lawfully employing them to the best of our knowledge,” Lelcaj said.
Lelcaj said that all potential hires provide her team with a packet of paperwork, including proof residency such as a passport or Green Card.
They sometimes run the paperwork through a third party, e-verification process — a practice that has become more common for the company under the Trump administration.
“Only since the new administration are we ramping up and putting everyone through the e-vetting process because we can’t take any risks,” Lelcaj said.
“We have heightened up measures to be compliant because we have seen other places where this has happened,” Lelcaj said.
Lelcaj said that she and her team were shaken by the incident. “They are feeling like they can get arrested anytime because of the color of their skin. There is heightened fear in their community,” she said.
Many of her employees have lived in the US for years, where they are married and raising families. “These are the hardest working people and they have been with us for years,” she said.
Lelcaj explained that even those who are legally authorized to work in the US are fearful of ICE agents.
“They are intimidated because their friend just got arrested for throwing out the trash. They want to go home to their wives and kids, they don’t want to spend the night in jail proving the validity of their documentation.”
Lelcaj, an Albanian immigrant who moved to the US in the 80s, said she is sympathetic to the circumstances some of her staffers work under.
“It breaks my heart that these people don’t have the same opportunity I had when I came here in the 80s. The American dream is alive and well in certain parts of the country but for a certain demographic it’s just seem like it isn’t possible anymore,” she said.
The restaurant’s customers have been widely supportive of Lelcaj and her staff. But some Ann Arbor residents say they will no longer dine at Sava’s.
“Now people are saying, ‘I’m never going to eat at your restaurant because you hire illegal immigrants,’” Lelcaj said.
Lelcaj has a message for dissidents: “I myself was an illegal immigrant, and if that’s how you feel, we are not the restaurant for you.”
ICE confirmed three arrests in a statement to Eater Wednesday.
“While conducting a targeted enforcement action at Sava’s restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Ice Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) officers encountered and arrested three individuals on immigration violations.”
Two of the men entered the United States illegally, the release said, while the third man entered the country legally “but did not depart in accordance with the terms of his status.”
The release did not name a fourth victim.