Immigrants Shy From Md. Shops After Bust

By Mariana Minaya
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 14, 2007

At lunchtime most Fridays, the line of customers craving the savory, spicy roasted chicken of El Pollo Rico in Wheaton winds outside the door and spills onto the sidewalk. Yesterday, there were only a few people milling about the shopping center that houses the now closed restaurant.

After immigration officials seized nine employees at the Ennalls Avenue restaurant Thursday morning, shop employees and patrons said local immigrants were keeping a low profile. Many, they said, are reluctant to shop or show up for work at nearby businesses. Who knows when the scene might repeat itself?

"There's much hubbub right now because of what happened," Juan Lopez, 27, of Wheaton said in Spanish. "There are many people who don't want to return to work, because they think immigration will come back."

Lopez, who said he entered the country legally, said he quit his job at a nearby business because he feared immigration officers.

Federal agents arrested four members of the family that owns the popular restaurant with two locations in the Washington area. Francisco Carlos Solano, 55, and his wife, Inés Solano, 59, of Germantown; Consuelo Solano, 69, of Arlington County; and Juan Faustino Solano, 57, of Kensington were charged with employing and harboring illegal immigrants, money laundering and structuring deposits to avoid financial reporting requirements. The Solanos housed some of their workers in two homes in Kensington and Wheaton, according to an affidavit.

Nine others were taken into custody and face deportation proceedings.

Owners of and workers at other businesses in the shopping center that cater to and employ Latinos watched as immigration officials took them away. They said potential customers were too jittery to shop yesterday.

"This place is usually full," said Oneida Diaz, a cashier at the Mercado Latino grocery store. "People are a bit alarmed. They're afraid to come out."

Brad Botwin, director of Help Save Maryland, a group opposed to illegal immigration, yesterday said he welcomed the arrests in an area he says has been overtaken by illegal immigration. "I'm glad the feds, in cooperation with the county police, took some action, but I think it needs to be stepped up dramatically," Botwin said.

Maria Cristina Garcia, a hairdresser at Salon de Belleza Sarita's Unisex, adjacent to the restaurant, said she often ate at El Pollo Rico. She said it seemed like a collegial place to work, with the owners and the employees often joking.

"They're people who've never caused trouble, who never attract attention," she said of the owners.

But Rufus Nix Jr., 43, of Takoma Park said he often found the owners to be curt or irritated.

"When you'd go into the store, it just seemed like he was angry," Nix said. "You would think he'd be smiling. . . . I've never seen him smile as long as I've known him."

Still, throngs of people were known to line up for meals, sometimes enduring lengthy waits.

Peruvian culture in the Washington region includes more than 50 restaurants, 10 traditional dance groups and an active leadership council, Peruvian Consul Fernando Quirós said. He said he does not know the Solano family personally but knew the business by reputation. "I heard a lot about El Pollo Rico. It was one of the best."

He added: "The community is very active, and there is much solidarity. This story of Pollo Rico is really a surprise to all of us. We hope that things will get clarified. We hope that this Peruvian family will demonstrate that they are innocent."

Luis Lora, 60, of Kensington came to the restaurant yesterday to buy 60 chickens for his neighborhood pool, where Pollo Rico chicken is always in high demand, he said. The food was "excellent, though it didn't seem like it from just looking at the place," he said in Spanish.

Lora also worried that the arrest would negatively impact the image of the Hispanic community. "They make the community look bad," Lora said. "If he's a minority, people will say every minority does the same thing."

Botwin said he had little sympathy for how the arrests might affect legal immigrants. "It's not like we're going out with baseball bats and going after anyone who looks Hispanic," he said. "That's ridiculous. That's [immigrants'] way of saying, 'Leave us alone.' "

Staff writer Krissah Williams contributed to this report.

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