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Restaurateurs Arrested for Illegal Workers

"They have been pioneers for as long as I've known," said Martin Cuzzi, a Peruvian immigrant who owns a real estate firm in Gaithersburg. "My gosh. We stopped by to eat their pollo al brasa so many times when we were undocumented."

A Guatemalan who works at El Pollo Rico -- which means "the tasty chicken" -- said in a phone interview that Francisco Solano knew many of his employees were in the country illegally.

"He just didn't ask you for papers," said the employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid legal problems. She described Solano as "a good boss" who did not exploit his workers. She said she was devastated to learn that one of her cousins was taken into custody. "He had already built half of a house in Guatemala. Now none of his dreams will come to pass."

Word of the arrests spread throughout the community yesterday, with callers on local Spanish-language radio stations warning listeners to stay away from Maryland.

Sergio Antonio Martinez, 52, of Rockville, a legal immigrant from Nicaragua, said he was coming to the restaurant to buy chicken when he saw a group of restaurant employees being taken from the restaurant in handcuffs.

"What occurred here was not right," he said. "We work; we pay taxes. They took those poor guys as if they were criminals. It's not right."

At least four Montgomery County police officers helped federal agents conduct the investigation, according to the affidavit written by ICE special agent Brian Smeltzer. The officers' role was to interview El Pollo Rico employees to gather information about their identity and employment, according to the affidavit.

The workers provided the officers -- some of whom speak Spanish -- their names, dates of birth and other information that was later used by federal agents to establish that many were illegal immigrants.

The extent to which Montgomery officers get involved in immigration matters has become a hotly debated issue in the county.

Police officials in the county have said officers generally don't inquire about people's immigration status unless they are targets of a criminal investigation, have been arrested or have an outstanding administrative immigration warrant.

"We were interviewing witnesses to a crime," said Lt. Ron Hardy of the Montgomery County police special investigations division.

"No action was taken against any of these people when we interviewed them. I don't know if any of those who were interviewed were eventually arrested" by immigration agents, he said.

Staff writers N.C. Aizenman, Ruben Castaneda and Krissah Williams and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this story.

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