Neighbors shocked as Michael’s closes because of visa problem

Iconic restaurant's success contributed to immigration woes

The news that Michael’s Frozen Custard on Monroe Street in Madison will be closing after the owner’s husband was barred from returning to the United States stunned neighborhood residents.

“That’s just been a gathering place for our neighborhood forever,” said Andrea Gunn, a teacher and mother of three who lives a few blocks from the store.

“If we have a band concert, we go to Michael’s after. If we have a play, we go to Michael’s after. It’s just a gathering place for celebrating community events,” Gunn said.

Particularly on the Fourth of July, Michael’s has been the place to gather for families with young children, Gunn recalled.

“The little kids would decorate their bikes there, and we’d do a whole parade.” Michael’s provided red, white and blue decorations, scissors and tape, she said.

A huge photo of one of those parades hangs on the wall at Michael’s. Gunn’s neighbor Janine Frank snapped a picture of it last fall, with her daughter, now 14, standing in front of an image of her younger self wearing a green bike helmet.

Alison Selge at Michael’s

“When I took the picture of Allison last fall, it never occurred to me that it might close,” said Frank. “We’ve lived in this house for 20 years, and it’s always been a part of our lives.”

But according to the US government, Michael’s proprietor Michael Dix’s husband, who has lived and worked in the United States for the last 30 years, is not welcome in this country anymore, the couple learned recently.

Dix and his husband, Sergio De La Hernandez, were told Hernandez could not get a visa to return to the United States after taking a trip to Mexico, Channel 3000 reported yesterday.

Dix and Hernandez have been married since 2015. Dix sponsored Hernandez for a visa after their marriage. Hernandez had been living in the United States as an undocumented resident for 30 years. In 2018, Hernandez’s visa application was denied. 

Jessica Slin, the couple’s immigration attorney, explains that Hernandez went back to Mexico as part of the visa process. Because he had not entered the country legally, he had to have his visa interview abroad.

That was a year ago. 

As an undocumented immigrant, Hernandez’s visa application triggered an “unlawful presence ban”—something the couple only discovered at the visa interview. They turned to Slin’s firm to get help applying for a hardship waiver so that Hernandez could come back home.

“His hardship waiver should have been approved,” said Slin, “We were shocked. I’ve submitted cases far less compelling than this and got approvals. So for this case be denied, I was not prepared for that.”

While Hernandez has been stuck in Mexico for a year, Michael travelled back and forth to visit him, returning to Madison to take care of the business. 

“But then when they got the most recent denial of the waiver he went to Mexico to be with him,” Slin said. “They’re just so devastated by what we thought would be an approval and moving along toward that next step of getting him his green card.”

Hernandez helped Dix run Michael’s and his absence made it too hard to keep operating the store, Dix said in a statement.

Ceili Cordero, a sophomore at the University of South Carolina, grew up near the Michael’s store on Monroe Street and worked there when she was in high school.

“It was cool because it’s such a neighborhood staple. I’d see a lot of people I knew,” she told the Examiner.

“My friends texted me about it and they were heartbroken,” she added. “It’s just always been there for us. It’s a family business that’s closing in our neighborhood. It’s just really sad.”

Michael Dix (http://www.ilovemichaels.com)

Gunn said she’d had conversations with family members who said that however ugly politics have gotten during the Trump administration, “it won’t affect us. This is directly affecting us!” she said. “That’s our neighborhood!”

Cordero echoed that sense of shock. 

“This isn’t something you’d expect in Madison,” she said. “I live in South Carolina now and I would expect that would happen down here.”

Slin believes an inexperienced officer failed to give the case a fair review.

“The officer just focused on the fact that even though the business has been in decline since Sergio left, they still are people of means,” she said. “They have a business. They’re well above the poverty level—but you don’t have to be poor to qualify for the waiver.”

It’s an irony of US immigration policy that Hernandez, who has no criminal record and worked for years helping to build up an iconic business beloved by the community, is blocked from returning to this country in part because of his own success. 

“This separation has made Michael’s mental and physical health problems worse,” says Slin. “In the denial, they just seemed to focus on ‘you have means.’”

Asked if the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrants contributed to the couple’s troubles, Slin said, “I can’t look into the mind of the specific officer reviewing this case, but I do see more pressure put on officers to deny cases from certain countries. Here we have a Mexican national.”

She plans to appeal the case. Meanwhile, Michael’s will close its Monroe Street location, one of three in the Madison area, on September 9. The couple remains in Mexico.

Looking at the sea of white children in her photo of the Fourth of July parade, Frank mused about how the largely Hispanic workforce at Michael’s created a feeling of community for so many non-Hispanic neighbors, holding events on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and, of course, Independence Day. “They were good neighbors,” she said. “I hope it makes people think about how immigration affects all of us.”

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. She moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on All in with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, and other radio and television programs. In 2011, she did award-winning coverage of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Conniff graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Please stop using the term, “undocumented.” He was here illegally. He didn’t just lose his papers, he came here illegally. I’m glad that, at least in this case, justice was blind to his money and his dollars couldn’t buy him unfair treatment

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