JP Caceres came to the United States from Bolivia 13 years ago, working his way up the ranks of the Washington, D.C., restaurant industry. In the meantime, he overstayed his visa, a fact he kept quiet from associates and friends.
“At first I was very private about it. I think immigration and being in the United States, fighting to be a citizen or a resident and not being with proper status it’s something that immigrants we go through a lot … I’d say its a very delicate topic, but its also a very embarrassing topic,” said Caceres.
He rose from barback to popular bartender, and most recently to owner of a consulting company, designing cocktail menus for some of the city's top restaurants. In 2010, The Washington Post named Caceres one of “five local mixologists on the rise."
In December, things changed for Caceres, whose full name is Juan Pablo Caceres Rojas. He was arrested after an altercation with a cab driver, who said Caceres cursed at him, pulled his ear buds out and threatened him. The incident landed Caceres in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“For me, being there was a shock, as well as for the community and my family,” said Caceres. “I just never, I never saw that coming.”
When friends learned about his detention, they started a GoFundMe page to raise money for his legal fees. The campaign raised more than $20,000, surpassing its goal.
“I bought a lot of drinks during the past 13 years and that made me a lot of friends and that made me a lot of handshakes and a lot of hugs and kisses,” said Caceres. “So I belong to this city. This is my city.”
Stories like this are familiar to many in the restaurant industry. Twelve percent of all servers and food prep workers are undocumented, according to a 2008 Pew Study.
The National Restaurant Association, based in Washington, D.C., has made immigration reform a priority for years, lobbying for legal work status for those already in the United States. The association is also vying for a standard system to check employee work status and a program for additional work visas.
“There’s a large proportion of new immigrants who are employees, because it’s a career of opportunity,” said Angelo Amador, vice president of labor and workforce policy at the National Restaurant Association. “You don’t need much experience to get started.”
Caceres spent almost 30 days at the Farmville Detention Center, but was released in January and later granted a three-month stay of removal to allow his criminal case to be resolved, according to ICE.
"ICE is focused on sensible, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens,” said ICE Public Affairs Officer Brandon Montgomery in a statement to Fusion.
Caceres plans to return to Bolivia and apply for a visa for people “who possesses extraordinary ability,” according to his immigration attorney, Andres Benach.
“JP designs cocktail programs and creates innovative drinks for some of the top restaurants in the country,” Benach said. “To me it’s just another small subset of culinary arts.”
Caceres said he will take advantage of his temporary respite from deportation, spending it with people he loves, and making good cocktails.
“I have 90 more days here in the states,” he said, “and I’m going to use every single one of those dates the best that I can.”
Geneva Sands is a Washington, D.C.-based producer/editor focused on national affairs and politics. Egg creams, Raleigh and pie are three of her favorite things.