Last Thursday, after eating lunch at Meadow Ice Cream & Seafood in Littleton, Juan Pu and his family were stopped in the parking lot.
Two men, not in uniform, got out of an unmarked vehicle; one flashed a badge, and they asked Juan for his identification, his family alleges.
Then he was taken away.
“They didn’t have him in handcuffs, they just put him into their car,” said Juan’s oldest son, John.
This week officials confirmed that Juan, 40, was taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol Agents from the Beecher Falls (Vt.) Station.
The agents were patrolling the Littleton area when they encountered Juan, a native of Guatemala, who was “without documentation allowing him to enter and remain in the United States,” according to a Border Patrol spokesperson.
Now, Juan awaits a deportation hearing at the Strafford County jail in Dover, the only state facility used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It is unknown what role ICE played in the arrest. They did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile his family — wife, Natalia Pu-Calan, and children Jessica, 16, John, 14, and David, 4 — face an uncertain future.
“We haven’t gone out much, because we’re just too scared,” said Jessica. “We’re in a really tough situation.”
Juan had been the chef at Plain Kate’s Riverside Saloon & All Ways Inn in Franconia since early 2018.
Plain Kate’s owner Cornelia Lorentzen met Juan nearly a decade ago, when he cooked at her favorite restaurant in Palm Beach, Fla. When she moved to New Hampshire and opened her establishment, she convinced him to pack his bags, travel north, and take over the kitchen.
According to Lorentzen, Juan was instrumental in building the food side of the business, creating a well-received menu that includes duck tacos, shrimp tempura and seared tuna.
“Check out our reviews,” Lorentzen said. “The owner can be a pain in the ass, but the chef’s a marvel. It’s common knowledge. He cooks with love. He’s arguably the best cook in the North Country.”
She called him a model employee and person.
“He does not deserve this, he’s a good man, he contributes to our society,” Lorentzen said.
A Gofundme campaign was launched, seeking to raise $8,000 to pay for Juan’s legal expenses. As of Tuesday afternoon $840 had been donated.
In addition, updates on Juan’s situation have been posted to the Plain Kate’s Facebook page, the most recent on Monday evening saying “Only community support can save him now from separation from his wife and children” and adding “Senator Shaheen’s office has informed me that letters of character reference, as many as possible, as soon as possible can be effective.”
Those posts have sparked debate about immigration laws, and increased enforcement tied to policy changes made under Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama. In the past decade, the number of ICE detainees at Strafford County jail has increased from 17 a day in 2009 to 115 a day last year.
Looking ahead, Juan will remain jailed indefinitely until the judicial process begins. No court date has been set. In the meantime, his family must wait. They cannot travel to see him (his wife is not licensed to drive) but they maintain contact by phone, talking to him every other day.
According to the family, Juan and his wife have both attempted to work within the system and become U.S. citizens, and they remain in the process.
Family members described him as humble and hard working; a church-going father who fled the poverty of his native country in search of a better life for his children; a person who started on the bottom rung of the restaurant industry and climbed his way up.
Now, they worry, it will all be undone.
“We’re just hoping that they don’t deport him and he can stay,” his daughter Jessica said.
“My mom doesn’t know what she is going to do. We might go back to Guatemala. Or we might go back to Florida, where my mother will have to start from the bottom again.”