It seemed like a standard request for the Lloyd taco truck, a local favorite in Buffalo. Last week, a building on the outskirts of the city asked the truck to park outside around midday so its employees could have Mexican food for lunch.
But the building in Batavia, N.Y., was a federal detention center run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the hungry workers were mostly ICE employees.
Within hours, the small business, which serves “Tricked Out Nachos” and an “El Camino Bowl,” was plunged into the crosshairs of the rancorous national debate over immigration.
Lloyd, which operates four taco trucks in the area, was hit with a barrage of criticism from immigration advocates and left-leaning Buffalo residents, who accused the small business of collaborating with ICE.
That the cuisine was Mexican, the nationality of many of the people subject to stricter immigration policies under President Trump, seemed like additional insult.
The company’s owners quickly apologized for agreeing to station a truck outside the detention center, only to find themselves apologizing again shortly after, this time for offending law enforcement.
“We serve all communities, we go to all neighborhoods, we are not political. Why would we be?” one of Lloyd’s owners, Pete Cimino, said at a news conference on Monday. “How can any business choose sides in our politically divided country and ever hope to succeed?”
He added: “We make tacos — not war.” The owners did not respond to requests for an interview from The New York Times.
The controversy has stoked divisions in Buffalo, a city that is home to many refugees and immigrants in a largely conservative stretch of upstate New York, and has shown how even small local companies can be lashed by escalating tensions over national policy.
The company first apologized on Thursday for a “lapse in judgment” in sending a truck to the detention center on the previous day and then promised to evaluate all future locations and events to ensure they aligned with its values. Lloyd also pledged to donate the lunch profits to a local immigration advocacy organization.
But that apology sparked a new backlash, as some residents took offense at what they saw as Lloyd’s stance against ICE and the values they believe law enforcement agencies espouse.
“In what world does a company feel the need to apologize for serving food to federal law enforcement officers who work in dangerous conditions?” Rob Ortt, a Republican state senator and congressional candidate, said on Twitter. “The men and women who work to enforce our immigration laws and protect us deserve better.”
On Monday, Mr. Cimino said his company, which has around 130 employees, does not have a position on federal immigration policies.
But just by appearing to take sides in the immigration debate, the company has already taken a hit: Mr. Cimino said three prearranged visits by a Lloyd food truck were canceled in the last week and its Facebook page had received more than 5,000 heated comments.
“Honestly, we were not prepared for the anger directed at us, it was surprising, and demoralizing,” Mr. Cimino said.
Since the Trump administration began implementing its immigration policies, the pressure on companies to reject any link to ICE has grown — often with success.
Six airlines in the United States said they would not work with the federal government to transport children who were separated from their parents by ICE. Hundreds of employees at companies such as Microsoft and Deloitte Consulting have petitioned their organizations to end their contracts with ICE.
Over the summer, in anticipation of mass ICE raids, several hotel chains, including Marriott International, said they would not allow agents to use their rooms to house detained immigrants, as the agency has done when there is no space in detention facilities.
Small businesses like Lloyd, which cannot usually offer significant support or services to federal agencies, are typically insulated from such pressure.
“It’s a shame when small entrepreneurs get embroiled in something they are not giving a lot of thought to, when the big companies — Google, Facebook, drug companies — are always involved in this stuff,” said Susan McCartney, director of the Small Business Development Center at SUNY Buffalo State.
Still, the pushback could begin to reach a larger swath of companies that work with ICE.
“There is no aspect of immigration detention that can survive without for-profit businesses,” said Jennifer Connor, executive director of Justice for Migrant Families of Western New York, an advocacy organization in Buffalo. “I think businesses have to decide what their values are and what kinds of stands they are going to take. There is no not-political stance.”