REFUGIO - To some, Alfredo Plascencia is a criminal, but to others, the Refugio business owner is the victim of unfair immigration laws and overzealous prosecution.
"It is our duty to uphold the law," said Jennifer Lowery, a U.S. Attorney's executive assistant, in a written statement. "When we believe someone has committed such felonies, we have a responsibility to the community to act."
But Plascencia's attorney, Ron Barroso, who advised his client during the interview, said detaining nonviolent, noncriminal community members for housing or employing people who are illegally living in the U.S. is wrong and motivated by politics rather than justice.
"It's not limited to anyone who has a prior record. It is not limited to anybody who has done any bad acts. I think they are just trying to cater to the right wing that is controlling them," Barroso said. "This is a slippery slope that we are on."
Plascencia, who has no criminal history in the U.S., is charged with 17 counts of bringing in and harboring people suspected of residing in the country illegally, Lowery said. He is also charged with giving firearms to a person living in the country illegally.
According to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement February news release, "All of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to enforcement proceedings." That policy is the direct result of an executive order by President Donald Trump, the release said.
Plascencia was detained on the morning of Feb. 21 when federal immigration investigators raided his two popular Refugio restaurants and two of his residential properties. The raids were the product of a multiyear, international investigation and resulted in the detention of 18 other people who are suspected of living in the country illegally, an ICE spokesman said. Of those detained, 16 will serve as material witnesses for the prosecution.
Like Barroso, James Walker, a Refugio doctor, said he sees injustice in the raids and Plascencia's charges. The raids outraged him as well as many others in the community, he said, and prompted him to help organize the grassroots Refugio Immigration Coalition to advocate for immigrant rights.
"For us to not get involved would have been a major infraction on our humanity," he said. "We have to let the powers that be know they're not going to get away with this."
Morning of Feb. 21
Maria Plascencia, 35, couldn't hide her tears as she described what she saw the morning of Feb. 21.
"That day was the most ugly day of my life," said Plascencia, who is the sister-in-law and 15-year employee of Alfredo Plascencia. "That's something I never want to live again."
Maria Plascencia arrived at Taqueria Guadalajara, where she still works, to find dozens of federal agents wearing khakis and black jackets emblazoned with "ICE" in white letters. She had just dropped off one of her kids at high school and was driving to the restaurant to pick up a taco for her second oldest child's breakfast.
Investigators from ICE's Homeland Security Investigations division, U.S Border Patrol and the Refugio Police Department executed four search warrants about 6:30 that morning.
At a Feb. 27 hearing, Special Agent Anne McGee, of the Department of Homeland Security, testified that a Refugio police chief's tip prompted her to begin the investigation that resulted in the raids.
Most of those detained, nationals of Mexico, Honduras and Nicaragua, were found at 510 Dunbar St., a residential property owned by Alfredo Plascencia that contains dormitory-style housing units.
For about two weeks after, both restaurants remained closed until a federal judge set a $100,000 bond for Plascencia.
The raids and closing of the restaurants, said Maria Plascencia, have hurt her family financially and emotionally.
"That's something I saw on TV but never thought it would happen to my family," she said. "The only thing we do is work."
More than meets the eye
Plascencia's case is unusual, said Judge Jason Libby during the Feb. 27 hearing.
"This is not a typical human trafficking case or harboring case ... The offense also does not involve any juveniles, coercion, duress or violence. It does not involve any controlled substances," Libby said.
Barroso said his client is no criminal but rather a cherished member of the community who donated his restaurant's food and thousands of dollars to Refugio churches, veterans groups, charities and even the county fair. Those claims were corroborated by community members who testified in court.
McGee testified that investigators found large quantities of cash in Plascencia's home. They found $50,000 in cash inside a briefcase underneath his bed. Another $147,900 in cash was discovered in a lockbox belonging to Plascencia.
Additionally, a clipboard holding Spanish-language instructions explaining how to launder money was found inside the Taqueria Guadalajara's office.
Under cross-examination by Barroso, McGee admitted Plascencia was not the only person who had access to the office.
510 Dunbar St.
Past the Taqueria Guadalajara's dusty parking lot and hidden behind a tall, gated fence, some of Plascencia's employees still live in the dormitory-style units that were raided by ICE agents in February.
The sparse rooms at the 510 Dunbar St. property contain modest furniture, window air-conditioning units, mattresses and, in some cases, televisions.
Federal investigators described the rooms as dirty "sheds," according to court documents.
While questioning McGee in court, Barroso disputed that portrayal, pointing out that the residence was occupied almost completely by single men, who could be "unkempt."
Jose Leal, a Refugio handyman who worked for Plascencia for years, said the property was well maintained.
"He's very giving. He's very caring," Leal testified. "They might think that his workers are mistreated, but hey, they got bigger plasma TVs than I do, literally. I mean, these guys are very well-taken care of."
Links in a chain
Jackson County Sheriff Andy Louderback said participating in illegal immigration, even when the harm is not immediately apparent, is hardly a victimless crime.
"All of those crimes associated with human smuggling, indentured servitude - all of its crime activity - start and stop with the people who are part of that chain who take part in the system that preys on illegal aliens as they come into this country," Louderback said.
ICE's policy is to investigate those links, wherever or whatever they may be and no matter how benign the crimes may appear.
"ICE targets all links in the smuggling chain beyond the immediate smugglers," according to ICE's website.
Lowery, of the U.S. Attorney's Office, said prosecution of such crimes does not require identifying victims. It only requires proving a law was broken.
"Whether such crimes involve victims or not, they are still crimes and something we do not take lightly," she said.
Refugio County Republican Party Chairman Jeff Steele agreed the issue is about following the law.
"We are never going to fix the problem if we have ... law enforcement agencies that are not upholding the law," he said.
But Barroso said such an interpretation of the law could lead communities to ugly places.
"Does it end on Ocean Drive in Corpus Christi with those people who have a gardener or a maid or a nanny that are in this country illegally?" he asked. "Do you arrest those people, too?"