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Well-liked chef at Zen West in North Baltimore arrested by ICE

A chef at Zen West Roadside Cantina in North Baltimore was arrested on his way into work last week by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The 45-year-old chef, Jesús, who goes by the nickname José, was driving on Walther Avenue around 9 a.m. July 18 with Velma, his partner and the mother of his 5-year-old son. They were headed to their job in the kitchen of the Tex-Mex restaurant at 5916 York Road when they were pulled over by ICE officers in an unmarked silver car.

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Velma provided the couple’s last names to The Baltimore Sun but asked that they not be published, citing safety concerns. The Sun verified the arrest with ICE.

A spokesperson with ICE said in an email Friday that officers with the Baltimore fugitive operations team arrested Jesús, alleging he illegally re-entered the U.S. after a removal to his home country of Honduras in 2005. ICE did not immediately respond to questions about why he was deported the first time.

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On Tuesday, acting ICE director Matthew Albence told reporters in Washington that 35 arrests were made in an ongoing enforcement operation that targeted 2,100 people with final deportation orders in Baltimore and nine other cities. The effort came after President Donald Trump tweeted in June that ICE would begin deporting “millions” who entered the country illegally.

A separate operation targeting people with removal orders who also had criminal convictions lasted two months and ended July 11, resulting in 899 arrests, according to Albence.

Velma allowed reporters to view a cellphone video she took of the arrest from the passenger seat of the couple’s SUV.

In the video, two men wearing all-black uniforms labeled “Police” approach the car with a document and ask Jesús whether he had been deported in 2005. He does not respond.

After being told to go with the officers, Jesús hands over his belongings to Velma and tells her to calm down. As the officers take him away, Velma can be heard in the video weeping.

“No," she says in Spanish. "This isn’t possible.”

Velma rushed back home to find a lawyer. Hours later, around 1 p.m., she was relieved to hear the sound of Jesús’ voice. He was calling from the ICE Baltimore Field Office at Hopkins plaza.

“He told me to calm down, because my children need me to be strong," she said.

Zen West, a Tex-Mex restaurant in north Baltimore, is raising money for the family and legal fees of one of its employees, who was arrested by ICE on his way to work July 18, according to the restaurant owner and manager.
Zen West, a Tex-Mex restaurant in north Baltimore, is raising money for the family and legal fees of one of its employees, who was arrested by ICE on his way to work July 18, according to the restaurant owner and manager. (Thalia Juarez | Baltimore Sun)

An associate attorney at the Law Office of Raymond Griffith said lawyers visited Jesús at the detention center to explain what can be done in his case and plan to represent him if he chooses to fight his deportation.

Velma said she can’t afford to let what happened stop her from working. She has five children in El Salvador to support as well as her son, who was born in the U.S., she said.

“Daddy went out on an errand,” Velma told the boy.

Jesús presented the appropriate documentation required to work when he was hired at the restaurant, where he has worked for about five or six years, said Po Chang, Zen West’s owner.

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The restaurant has raised more than $3,000 for Jesús’ attorney’s fees and other costs in an online fundraiser, and it is soliciting in-person cash donations with a box at the bar.

“He’s just a great person,” Chang said. “He’s a hardworking family guy that really shouldn’t deserve this.”

Jesús’ absence last Thursday was particularly noticeable because he always showed up on time, said Emma Plowman, a Zen West manager. He went beyond his duties as a cook, coming out to the front of the house to help when the restaurant got crowded, and he never complained when a lack of staffing meant working a double shift, she said.

Plowman, too, spoke with him over the phone after his arrest and told him the restaurant and its regulars are supporting him.

“He’s trying to stay positive,” she said. “It’s a really hard situation to be in.”

Velma described Jesús, who also has a U.S.-born daughter, as a responsible man and a dedicated worker and father. The future is uncertain for the mother and son. Jesús has been detained at two facilities, one in Baltimore and another in Frederick County, she said.

Her hands shook and her eyes welled with tears as she played the video of the arrest.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen," Velma said. “Every day that passes, I treat it like any other day. Fight for the children. Fight for whatever God tells me to.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Barker contributed to this article.

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