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From the outset, this was not a routine Immigration and Naturalization Service raid. For one thing, the timing was all wrong. The three INS agents arrived at Gula Gula more than an hour before the restaurant opened. The setting made no sense, either. Rather than bursting into the kitchen to round up undocumented dishwashers, the plainclothes officers traipsed into the chic Ocean Drive eatery with such elan that workers at first mistook them for customers. Most unlikely of all were the targets of the August 11 foray -- owners Julio and Roxanna Sabugosa.
"The inspectors came exactly to catch me and my wife," recalls Sabugosa, a Brazilian restaurateur. "They started to treat me very bad, like a criminal. They said, `You are a liar. Everything you say is a lie.' I told them, `This is my place. I'm here just to oversee. I'm not getting any money here, only spending.' I put my hand on one man's back, like a friend. He said, `Hey, don't touch! If you touch me, I'll put the handcuffs on.' And so I didn't touch. But he put the handcuffs on anyway. This was in front of all my employees. It was very embarrassing."
Sabugosa and his wife were taken into custody and questioned for several hours at INS headquarters on Biscayne Boulevard before officials released them on their own recognizance. The couple faces a joint deportation hearing November 5. Should an immigration judge rule to deport them, the Sabugosas would be forbidden to enter the United States for five years.
Julio Sabugosa says that would spell disaster for his struggling business, which opened eight months ago. Immigration attorney George Lopez maintains the case could have a far broader impact. "The real question is whether a business owner can be considered an employee," says Lopez, who will represent the Sabugosas at their upcoming hearing. "If they rule against us, are owners who need to check to make sure their cash businesses are being run correctly suddenly going to be considered workers?"
The question, he notes, is especially pertinent in South Beach, where foreign investors have flocked to open businesses in the past few years.
INS officials contend that the Sabugosa case hinges not on whether the couple was working, but the circumstances under which they entered the U.S. When the Sabugosas arrived at Orlando International Airport on August 9, they received tourist visas, which meant they were prohibited from conducting business during their visit. "It's not a matter of allowing or disallowing businessmen into the country. [Sabugosa] was admitted as a visitor for pleasure and violated the terms of his visa entry," explains Lenore Pepe, an assistant to Carol Chase, the acting INS district director.
Pepe refused to comment further on the Sabugosa case. But she offers the general observation that foreign visitors with commercial interests have been known to misrepresent themselves as tourists because a tourist visa is far easier to secure than a commercial visa and guarantees a six-month stay.
Sabugosa says he told Customs officials in Orlando that his purpose in the States was "both business and pleasure" and that he should have been given a commercial visa. He claims he flew into Orlando rather than Miami because the Brazilian travel company he uses routes flights to Miami through Orlando.
But attorney George Lopez insists the visa dispute is secondary to the question of whether the Sabugosas were "employed" at the time of their arrest. He points to INS's own paperwork. The document in which the agency sets out grounds for deportation, which is known as an "order to show cause," asserts that both Sabugosas "were employed for wages or other compensation on August 11 at Gula Gula restaurant without authorization of the INS."
"In no way, shape, or form were my clients receiving wages or other compensation," Lopez counters. "Maybe if they had been in business for five years, you could make the argument that they were receiving compensation. But they were in the start-up phase of the business. As Mr. Sabugosa explained at the time of his arrest, he had put a considerable amount of money into the business. If the INS wants to make good use of their resources, I suggest they should go after criminals, not businessmen."
Sabugosa is one of several Brazilian investors who put up the cash to open Gula Gula. Together, he and his wife own 23 percent of the Miami Beach restaurant and are part owners of two other Gula Gulas in Brazil. Sabugosa says he was stuck with overseeing the start-up of the Ocean Drive franchise after an American partner backed out of the duty. At this point, he says, all he wants is to return to his home in Brazil with his wife, who is pregnant.
But even if he is allowed to do so voluntarily, Sabugosa says he is reluctant to return to Miami Beach.
"He has a right to be," says George Lopez. "He hadn't even been in Miami one day and the INS came looking for him by name. Now, you don't get picked up by the INS without someone tipping them off. You don't have to be an Einstein to see someone reported him. We have some feelings as to who that someone might be, and it could be business related. But we'll have to wait to see if INS will release that information." To that end, Lopez says, he has filed a request with the agency under the Freedom of Information Act.
"It's a scary prospect if you think about it," says Ed Fernandez, a fellow immigration lawyer who will also represent the Sabugosas at the deportation hearing. "What if you had some German or Italian who came to see their business in Miami and an ex-business partner or someone else knew they could hurt them by reporting them to the INS? The important thing is not Julio Sabugosa, per se, but what the INS is going to do about this in the future.