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Auto shop owner receives death threats after immigrant girl hides in his garage

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Frank Gonzalez has quietly operated his auto repair shop here since 1980. He employs his son and 13 others, working on cars for customers who have come to them for decades.

"We've never had any trouble," said Gonzalez, 62.

That is, until this week. On social media, people he's never met are calling his family Nazis, comparing them to the people who betrayed Anne Frank during World War II. In phone calls and emails, people threatened to kill Gonzalez, kill his family and firebomb his business.

Gonzalez and several of the shop employees are now carrying guns.

"I never in all my life have seen anything like this," Gonzalez said, sweat dripping from his brow as he took a break from working on a car engine in his shop Tuesday. "All this division, it makes me so sad. We can disagree, but threats? Why?"

The trouble started Friday, when a 15-year-old Honduran girl darted into Gonzalez Auto Center, scared and crying. She had fled from workers at a detention facility where she was being held nearby, the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children, as they took her to an eye doctor appointment. She hid in a corner, crammed on the floor beside a large tool shelf, and refused to budge for more than an hour.

What Gonzalez and his staff did - or didn't do - to help the girl became a subject of fierce and sometimes ugly debate online after the story broke.

He said they offered the girl water and tried to talk to her, but she was clearly upset. One of the employees, Elvis Lopez, called his sister Bertha to see whether she could talk to the girl over the phone and calm her down. The girl told her that she had no family in the United States. She said she had been in the detention center for three weeks and couldn't stand it any longer. She was frightened and didn't want to go back, Lopez said.

Bertha Lopez had heard of a local immigrant rights advocate who might be able to help. Nora Sandigo, who heads Nora Sandigo Children Foundation, rushed to the shop, but she was 30 minutes away, and got there just after police had handcuffed the girl and put her into a car.

"We called the advocate, but she couldn't get here in time," said Eric Gonzalez, Frank's son, who also works at the shop.

Police cars had been circling the auto shop for a while after the girl escaped and were eventually contacted by an anonymous tipster who told them the girl was in the shop. Officers entered the garage, and began searching. Frank Gonzalez said he pointed out her hiding spot because they were seconds away from finding her anyway.

"People are saying we should have moved her or something," Eric Gonzalez said. "But she's a human being. She's not like a puppy you can put in a box and just drop off somewhere."

It's unclear how the girl entered the United States or where she is now. Mark Weber, deputy assistant secretary for public affairs for human services at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the custody of unaccompanied minors, said Tuesday the agency does not comment on individual cases.

Some online commenters criticized Gonzalez for letting the girl be sent back to "a concentration camp," and were infuriated by his proud support of Donald Trump. Gonzalez, who emigrated from Cuba with his family when he was 14, generally supports Trump's strong enforcement of immigration laws, but not the policy of separating children from their families at the border.

The Gonzalez family didn't realize how serious the problem had gotten until the FBI called on Saturday morning. They told Eric Gonzalez that they'd been monitoring the online comments about the incident, and they believed the family could be in danger.

"They showed me a picture of my grandma's house that somebody put online. People were saying, 'Go to that address, let's send this guy a message,' " Gonzalez said. "The FBI said, 'We don't recommend she stays there alone.' "

Frank Gonzalez said his 93-year-old mother is a strong woman and objected to leaving her home, "but I had to move her to safety."

Joseph McFadden was in the shop Tuesday for a repair to his 2015 Chrysler. He chatted with Frank Gonzalez as the mechanic worked under the hood with a wrench. McFadden has been a customer for 20 years, he said.

"I don't think it's right what's happening to them," McFadden, 39, said. "These guys are good people. They're like family around this community. They don't deserve any of this."

Eric Gonzalez said he's apolitical, and the shop is, too. The waiting room is decorated like a hometown business that's been there for four decades. Photos of a couple generations of Gonzalez children hang on the walls, from babies to college grads.

Framed photos of Ronald Reagan, and George and Laura Bush also hang on the wall, as does a poster of Michelle Obama with the quote, "When they go low, we go high!" and a drawing of Martin Luther King Jr.

Frank Gonzalez has seven children and 14 grandchildren. His eldest son served three tours of duty in Afghanistan, and several other family members are military veterans. One of his nephews died while serving in Afghanistan.

He said he's confident that his current troubles will fade. But he worries about how divided America has become and how that division turned his life upside down.

"This is not easy. When people threaten your family, it hurts," Gonzalez said. "We need to come together in this country."

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This article was written by Lori Rozsa, a reporter for The Washington Post.

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