Last winter, the New York Times wrote about a little-known immigration enforcement practice called the Criminal Alien Removal Initiative (CARI), a program of dubious legality practiced by the ICE Southern Regional Office in New Orleans. The program relies on racial profiling and sends ICE squads out to places frequented by Latinos — apartment complexes, grocery stores, laundromats, Bible study groups — where agents detain everyone in the area and take away those suspected of being undocumented.
“New Orleans is experiencing the new frontier in immigration enforcement: a stop and ‘stop and frisk’ program for the immigrant community,” Saket Soni, New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice Executive Director told the New York Times. “Without immediate action, the race-based raids being piloted in New Orleans will become the new normal across the country.”
In May of this year, two immigrants detained this way — Wilmer Irias Palma, a mechanic, and Yestel Velazquez, a post-Katrina reconstruction worker — filed a complaint with the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties reporting these abusive ICE operations, leading DHS to open an investigation. Initially, ICE granted them a 3-month stay of removal while the investigation continued, but did not release them from detention. However, after Yestel, Wilmer, their families, and other civil rights delegates from New Orleans briefed national civil rights, labor, and immigrant rights leaders about CARI and its practice of racially profiling immigrants, ICE actually revoked their stay of removal and scheduled them for deportation.
Wilmer, the mechanic, was deported last Friday. Yestel, a reconstruction worker who came to New Orleans to help the city rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, remains in detention. He wrote the below letter to President Obama asking for action on his case and for other cases in danger of deportation for being Latino in New Orleans. Read Yestel’s letter below, and ask ICE to stop his deportation here.
I came to New Orleans in 2005, a few months after Hurricane Katrina hit the city. I remember that in those days New Orleans felt dead and desolate. There was so much sadness. It seemed like the city would never recover. As a reconstruction worker, I worked in waste removal, cleaning away the debris, mud, and dirt that covered the city. I helped reconstruct schools, homes, and many areas of the city.
It was hard and dangerous work. The waste smelled very bad. It made us workers sick. Workers got injured or even died on the job, and there was little help available to us. But we knew our work was badly needed. Our work allowed communities to return to the city and live with some dignity after so much destruction.
Today, the city is much better. It’s improved with the help of Latino reconstruction workers, many of whom settled here and started families. We have rebuilt communities, helped grow the economy, and created jobs by starting Latino-owned businesses. It is here that I met my partner, Zunilda Ramirez. She is the best thing that has happened to me. We have created a community here. We talked about growing old together in New Orleans—that is, until the raid happened.
The Latino community is under attack by ICE and local police. They go to our Latino neighborhoods, businesses, and hang-outs. The raids never leave our mind, and they are paralyzing the community. My partner and I tried to stay at home as much as possible.
But even in our home, we couldn’t feel safe, because we lived in an apartment complex with many Latino families that was targeted by ICE. I used to see ICE agents around our complex, hiding behind cars, waiting for people in the apartment building to come out. I know many families that were torn apart by these raids. Parents and spouses were disappeared from their loved ones. I know families that made plans for their children and spouses in case one of them should be caught in an ICE raid and taken away.
Sure enough, the day that I feared came on May 13, 2014. On that day, I took my car to a Latino mechanic shop to have it checked out. I was about to leave the shop when ICE and police vehicles surrounded the shop and blocked my car from leaving. The agents ran into the shop and ordered all the Latino workers and customers in the shop to go outside.
ICE rounded us up like we were animals. They arrested us without giving any explanation as to why they were there and who they were looking for. They didn’t show us a warrant. The agents just lined us up and brought over to a vehicle with a fingerprinting machine. One by one, they fingerprinted us. Then I was put in handcuffs and ankle cuffs and taken away.
Because of the raid I am now locked up in detention center and will soon be deported. President Obama, do you understand the reality that Latinos are living through because of the ICE raids? Is this the way you believe we should be treated? Our community deserves an answer. Because in New Orleans, we Latinos are living in terror and being hunted down, even in our own homes.
Despite all this, I love New Orleans. This is my home and my city. I love the Saints. I still remember the first time I watched a Saints game and fell in love with our team. I love walking in Lafreniere Park with Zunilda and our dog Lucky, and taking Zunilda to the Audubon Park Zoo.
Latinos have contributed greatly to this city and we have set down deep roots in this community. This is why I am asking you, President Obama, to stop the raids. On behalf of the Latinos of New Orleans, I am asking that we be able to remain in the communities that we helped rebuild, that we be recognized as human beings with rights, and that we be treated with the dignity we deserve.