Unless Francisco Javier Gonzalez's lawyers can mount a successful defense soon, the devoted husband, father, and manager of a popular Italian restaurant just 2 miles north of President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach will be deported back to Mexico.
In the president's adopted hometown, locals have rallied behind Gonzalez, a man who they say has lived a model life in the United States for 21 years – and is the embodiment of the very values Donald Trump espouses such as hard-work, faith, family, and patriotism.
So far, some 135,415 people – including individuals from all walks of life – have signed an online petition urging immigration authorities to halt his deportation proceedings.
If Gonzalez were sent back to Mexico, it would force him to make a gut-wrenching decision no father should face: Whether to bring his family, or leave them behind.
"Were they to remain in the United States without their father," attorney Richard A. Hujber wrote in the online petition. "The girls would suffer extreme emotional and psychological damage from the breakup of their solid family dynamic and the absence of their hero – their father."
The alternative, however, would be relocating the entire family to a country that would be completely foreign to them. Following Javier back to Jalisco would also be traumatic, and could put his wife and three girls, ages 12, 9, and 7, in serious danger.
Rustic Jalisco has changed quite a bit since Javier left. In the intervening years, it has become home to perhaps the most deadly cartel in all of Mexico – the New Generation Cartel.
Last August, Mexican police raided a ranch linked to the cartel, after an army helicopter was shot down by a rocket propelled grenade. Among the weapons confiscated during the raid: A Barrett 50-caliber sniper rifle, an M60 machine gun, two stolen vehicles equipped with M60 machine gun mounts, and well over 1,000 rounds of ammunition.
"If I go back to Mexico," the soft-spoken Gonzalez tells questsin, "I go back to nothing. I would be lost because I don't have anything there, I don’t know what to do there.
"It is almost like going back in my life 20 years,” he adds. “It’s not fair for my three American daughters -- especially them. Because without me, they’re not going to have the same life.”
The bitter irony of the deportation order is that by all accounts, Javier is the epitome of the sort of immigrant that U.S. leaders say they’d like to welcome into the country.
He is a dedicated husband to wife Tara, a family man, and a very successful restaurant manager who pays his taxes and never broke the law. He says he loves America and wants to stay here in “his” country.
Indeed, five years ago Gonzalez did the right thing and voluntarily turned himself in to immigration authorities in a bid to attain legal status.
He also insists he would be happy to pay the government whatever restitution may be required.
That Javier’s life now teeters on the precipice of deportation vividly demonstrates the real world complexities of adopting a tougher policy on immigration.
And justice can be legally blind.
Gonzalez’s odyssey to America began on a farm in Jalisco, where there was no running water or electricity. By age 6, he was already rising early to feed the cows. His father soon taught him to milk them.
Each day, the boy would spend two hours a day in elementary school. The rest of his time was consumed by the farm.
“Everybody has to work on a farm,” he explains.
After five years, however, his education came to a stop. He was needed on the farm, and for the subsistence farmers in Jalisco, school was a luxury.
But Javier’s father was determined to help his son find a better life. So he completed an application and got him a visa to visit his brother in America.
In 1997, at the age of 15, Javier flew into Chicago. His brother picked him up and got him a job washing dishes on Palm Beach Island.
From there, Javier applied the work ethic he’d learned on the farm to the restaurant business. He worked full-time, and his brother put him through high school followed by two years of college. Along the way, he learned near-perfect English.
The owners at the popular restaurant he now runs, Pizza Al Fresco, recognized that Javier had a special drive, talent, and leadership ability. When he was just 26, they made him their general manager.
Today, he speaks proudly of the 50 employees he supervises. He notes with satisfaction the friendly and professional treatment they show every single customer.
One of the restaurant’s biggest fans: Trump attorney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
“He actually has sent us a lot of people here,” Javier beams. “He tells people in New York that we have the best food in Palm Beach.”
But even as Javier built a successful restaurant career, trouble loomed. Every day, he lived with the knowledge his immigration status could turn his life upside down in an instant.
Complicating his case to this day is what happened in 2001. After graduating from high school, he flew home to visit the mother and father who had sacrificed so much to make his new life in the United States possible.
On the return trip, Javier was stopped at the Houston airport and informed his visa was invalid.
Without a valid visa, he was put on a plane back to Mexico and told not to return under any circumstances for five years. Desperate to return, he snuck back across the border.
“Honestly when I did that,” he tells questsin, “I didn’t mean to [break the law]. I didn’t even know. I was not even aware of it. I grew up on a farm, not much education.”
Once he was safely back in Florida, life got back to normal. He returned to work, attended college, and met the love of his life -- Tara, a U.S. citizen by birth.
They married in 2006 and had their three daughters.
Throughout it all, Javier longed to earn legal status.
He came within just a few tantalizing weeks of qualifying under the controversial deferred adjudication program offered by President Obama, known as DACA. To make the cut, applicants had to be under 31 as of June 15, 2012. Javier turned 31 on April 24.
Javier has a warm smile and bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Micky Dolenz of Monkees fame. His voice grows quiet when talks about the call he received in 2011.
Back in Jalisco, his father was dying.
Javier naturally wanted to travel back to Jalisco for a final visit with the man who had sent him off on his extraordinary journey. But had he done so, he never would have been allowed back in the United States.
By now he had a family to look after; he knew he had to remain in Palm Beach. It was a painful choice.
“I wasn’t able to go and see him for the last time,” he says. “It’s hard to understand the whole process.”
Still, his father, a humble Jalisco farmer who worked the soil and milked cows his whole life to feed his family, passed away knowing his dream for a better life for his son had not been in vain.
“He was very proud,” Javier says. “My last year in high school, I had straight As. I graduated high school, went to college, passed all the exams.”
Eventually, however, his immigration status left him weary of always looking over his shoulder.
“It’s in your mind, kind of all day long,” he explains. “You’re always thinking, ‘How do I fix it?’”
He decided it was time to find some way to legalize his status. Javier’s attorney suggested the best course might be to turn himself in to immigration authorities, thereby signaling to U.S. officials that he was the sort of immigrant the United States would want to accept and welcome.
In 2014, Javier and his lawyer drove to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Miramar, Fla. There, Javier turned himself into ICE, thereby declaring himself an illegal resident of the United States of America.
He did so with trepidation, but also felt he had a strong case.
“It was risky obviously,” he says in retrospect. “But after so many years, I wanted to turn myself in.”
He was fingerprinted and held for a few hours, so ICE could verify he had a clean criminal record.
That was during the Obama era. Javier’s case was put on administrative hold, and he was under no threat of deportation while his lawyers filed court pleadings to keep him in the country.
But when the new administration came to town, President Trump fulfilled his campaign pledge to step up enforcement of U.S. immigration law. And the fateful decision Javier made when he was 19 to slip back into the country after being deported had put him on ICE’s radar.
In late May of 2018, when Javier went to Miramar for a routine check-in, ICE agents told his lawyer, “We’re going to take your client.” His attorney replied, “You’re not going to take him.”
According to Javier, an argument ensued, and it looked like the ICE agents had won.
“I thought they were going to detain me right there and deport me,” he says. “But they just took me in the back, put on an ankle monitor, and told me to get a plane ticket.
“They told me I could leave in three weeks, or sooner. They told me, ‘You must come back with a plane ticket in three weeks.’”
With ICE able to track his whereabouts electronically, and rapidly running out of options, Javier got his affairs in order. He bought his plane ticket as ordered, and tried to prepare his family for the worst.
His reprieve came just a few days before he was scheduled to be escorted out of the country. Miami attorney Rebeca Sanchez-Roig found enough procedural errors in the government’s paperwork to give a federal judge pause that Javier might not have received his due process. To provide time to look into the matter further, the judge stopped the deportation.
It was a very close call. “If we didn’t find those mistakes,” Javier says, “I probably wouldn’t be here right now.”
Surprisingly, Javier looks back on those difficult days with a sense of gratitude. As the date of his scheduled deportation drew near, his petition became a social-media sensation. The local newspaper, the Palm Beach Post, featured his case in several articles that were widely distributed. Producers at CNN took notice: Correspondent Randi Kaye interviewed Javier, and featured his story on “Anderson Cooper 360.” He became one of the most talked about people on the island, a status usually reserved for the very rich and famous.
To this day, Javier feels uplifted by how his influential customers and the entire Palm Beach community came to the defense of the former farm boy from Jalisco when he needed them most.
“When they knew they were probably going to deport me,” he recalls, “so many people came up to me, ladies crying, little kids wanting pictures with me.
“I kind of needed that, I got so much attention and love,” he says. “I was going through difficult times in my life. It was meant to happen -- that’s how I see it. It was so amazing.”
Among the influential figures who have voiced support for him:
- John Sculley, the former CEO of Apple and Pepsi-Cola, tweeted out his online petition.
- Real-estate mogul Burt Handelsman, affectionately known on the island as “the mayor of Worth Avenue,” has urged the town council to send a letter to President Trump asking him to intervene.
- In August, over 100 supporters turned out in a show of support at Pizza Al Fresco. The crowd gave him rousing applause, and he called the show of support “overwhelming.”
- David Desmond, the president’s nephew, calls Javier “an old friend.” Desmond is the son of Trump’s sister Maryanne Trump Barry, a judge with the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals. He used to play soccer with Javier at the Palm Beach Recreation Center.
- Former Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum also took note: Javier says the Democratic gubernatorial candidate signed his online petition.
Other distinguished signatories of the petition include Chris Leidy, a photographer and grandson of Lilly Pulitzer, and Nick Coniglio, a restaurateur and son of Palm Beach Mayor Gail Coniglio.
Today, when Javier walks around Palm Beach, his strong connection to the community is palpable. People stop by to ask how his case is going. Many assure him they’ve signed his petition, and earnestly wish him luck.
An eternal optimist by nature, Javier goes to work every day and tries to act as if nothing is wrong. He greets co-workers and customers with a warm smile, even as he knows that his family’s fate depends on the case now making its way through the federal courts.
His legal team has filed a Petition for Review with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, challenging the legality of the original 5-year bar to entry, as well as a renewal of that bar that the government obtained in Miramar while Javier was separated from his attorney and unable to obtain the advice of his counsel.
Hujber and Miami immigration attorney Rebeca Sanchez-Roig are also seeking a stay from the court to prevent Javier’s forcible removal from the United States until his federal case is adjudicated.
His case is currently in the discovery phase, and could take several more months to resolve. If a judge rules that the 5-year bar was illegitimate, it would substantially clear the way for Javier, the husband of a U.S. citizen, to be granted legal residency.
But no matter what the future may hold, Javier tells questsin he will always be grateful for the heartfelt embrace he has received from so many in a town that is also home to President Trump’s winter White House.
That was the message Javier delivered last spring when it looked like might lose his battle and be deported. He obtained permission to speak to the Palm Beach Town Council, and at the podium, he expressed his undying gratitude for the community’s support.
“I just want to thank you for having welcomed me so kindly to your town, a town that I dearly love,” he told council members. “If the worst happens, I will always be grateful for the opportunity you have given me.”
When he finished speaking, by several accounts, the council chambers erupted with applause.
Uncertain what his future may hold, Javier insists no one should feel sorry for him.
“Definitely, this community saved me,” he says. “I’m going to be grateful to them for the rest of my life -- absolutely, no doubt.
“I feel really good things are coming my way,” he adds.
“It’s been tough for me the last 20 years. But at the end of the day, it’s going to be great.