It was supposed to be just like any other Sunday morning. Warren Prosky would walk into The Golden Reef Diner in Rockville Centre, and before he could even ask, Sokol Vokshi — known as Sal to everyone at the diner — would sit Prosky down and have his usual breakfast ready on order. It had been that way for years. But on April 8, Prosky couldn’t find his usual waiter.
“Jimmy, the owner, walked up to me and said I wouldn’t be able to see Sal that day,” Prosky said. “Or any other day.”
Taken aback by Jimmy Trahanas’s words, Prosky learned what had happened to the kind man who had served him and many others at the Golden Reef. As has happened with so many immigrants in the past year, Vokshi — an Elmont homeowner who had lived in the United States for 25 years — was arrested and deported during his regular check-in with immigration officials. In the span of four days, Vokshi had been separated from his customers, his wife and his two daughters, one of whom has autism.
A sudden nightmare realized
After living for more than two decades in the U.S., Vokshi believed he was safe from deportation. He arrived in 1993 as an Albanian immigrant, seeking political asylum. His request was ultimately denied, and he was tagged with final orders for removal. De-spite those orders, he stayed, having work authorization papers, and lived a normal life, settling down with a wife, who is also Albanian, buying a home in Elmont and raising two children. Vokshi would meet with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agents every year to review his case, and he would be denied residency every time.
“I tried so many ways to get my papers, but everyone said there was not much that they could do because of the removal order on me,” Vokshi said.
He became accustomed to this pattern of meetings and rejections, but all of that changed in January 2017. After his election, President Donald Trump issued an executive order to change deportation priorities for the Department of Homeland Security and all immigration enforcement agencies. In a statement, DHS officials said they were ordered to prioritize the arrests and deportations of undocumented criminal immigrants, those who pose a threat to national security and those who have final orders of removal in place. DHS officials added that they would no longer issue any exemptions to any immigrant group.
“When Obama was president, I would go every year for my hearing, but with Trump, the time in between my hearings was getting shorter and shorter,” Vokshi said. “Now I was going every three months.”
He became increasingly worried about his family’s situation, because agents were also questioning his wife. On April 2, Vokshi and his lawyer, Altin Nanaj, paid their regular visit to the USCIS office on Federal Plaza in New York City. Nanaj had the usual papers ready to hand over when ICE agents suddenly appeared and told them that they were there to deport Vokshi. As Nanaj pleaded on his client’s behalf, Vokshi was taken from the room. Agents then arrested him and put him in a holding room.
The next couple of days went by like a blur. Vokshi was transferred to ICE’s Hudson County Correctional Facility in New Jersey, a detention center that is now closing after years of reports about the mistreatment of immigrants and poor cell conditions. On April 5, Sal was transferred back to New York and handed a ticket for a one-way flight to Albania. As he had done for the past four days, Vokshi pleaded with the agents.
“Please, I work, I pay my taxes, I have a house, I have kids who were born here,” he said. “And their response was always, ‘So what?’”
The next time Vokshi would see his family was via a video call through the WhatsApp international messaging application. He was now in Deres, Albania, staying with his sister.
Bring Sal back
As Warren Prosky heard this story, which he described as “living through the American nightmare,” he knew he had to do something for Vokshi. With the help of his daughter, Prosky launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to help Vokshi and his family. The online crowd-funding page, aptly named “Get Sal back to the U.S.A.,” has raised more than $9,500 to date from local residents who want their favorite waiter back.
“The customers were always very fond of him,” said Trahanas, who posted about the GoFundeMe page at the Golden Reef. “Sal was the most lovable person in the diner.”
The donors’ posts on the page had a common theme. They all wished for their friend to return, for their government to realize that Vokshi was an asset to the community and that families should not be broken up in the way Vokshi’s was. Prosky explained that Vokshi was popular because, when he served you, it was like you were dining with a friend.
“He’s not the guy you want to throw out of your country,” Prosky said.
Whenever Vokshi speaks of the GoFundMe page, he cannot help but share his excitement over how many of his customers are rooting for him. More than 100 people have donated so far, and Vokshi said that he would never be able to repay the donors for what they have done. But the joy he feels is short-lived as reality continues to add obstacles to Vokshi’s return.
Because he was recently deported, Vokshi will not be granted any form of visa any time soon. His only hope for a speedy return would be for his lawyer to successfully argue that he needs to be allowed back to take care of his daughters. He will have to wait two to three months to receive an answer on his case.
As he waits in Albania, Vokshi makes sure to stay in touch with his daughters. He used to drive them to school every morning, but now he lives more than 4,500 miles away from them.
“The first thing they say is always, ‘When are you going to come back? Why did they deport you?’” he said.
He warned his wife to never meet with immigration agents alone. He asked her to take their daughters with her because he dreads the idea of his wife being deported and leaving them alone. But Vokshi also hates the idea of having his daughters, who are American citizens, sent to Albania, disrupting the lives and friendships that they have built in Elmont and Franklin Square. His wife’s next meeting with USICS is in August.
“I’m just praying to be united with my family,” he said. “That’s my goal.”