Yestel Velasquez is a deeply-rooted member of the New Orleans community who has literally helped rebuild the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Yestel is a community leader fighting against civil rights abuses and racial profiling in New Orleans. He is also an undocumented immigrant who has lived and worked in America for nearly a decade.
On May 13, 2014, Yestel was caught up in a raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) while getting his car fixed at an autoshop frequented by Latino clients. Detained by ICE, Yestel filed a complaint with Department of Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, and was soon after granted a three months stay of his deportation. He was not, however, released from detention.
On Monday, August 4th, Yestel was informed by ICE that his stay would be revoked and he would be deported by the end of the week.
How do I know about Yestel Velasquez? Because over a year ago, as Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, we pledged as Reform rabbis to work for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. We rejoiced when bipartisan immigration legislation passed the Senate, but did not stop our work once the House of Representatives refused to act.
Instead, led by our intrepid Lead Organizer, Joy Friedman of Just Congregations, we worked to find out how we could make a difference in the lives of undocumented Americans. At our Chicago CCAR convention, we learned about the movement to prevent deportations that would not occur were the bill passed by the Senate to become the law of the land. By the spring meetings of our Commission on Social Action (CSA) in May, we decided the Reform Movement would engage in immigration reform, one human being at a time, by protecting immigrant families from being torn apart through deportations.
It is a long and instructive (but not appropriate for this piece) story about how we worked closely with the CSA to find national partners who would ask us to help in the defense of potential deportees.
Last Tuesday, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) heard of Yestel’s plight and asked us to act quickly. The CSA leadership thoughtfully and quickly vetted the case, and by Wednesday, the 20 rabbi ROR advisory team was authorized to act. We had our phone scripts and were armed with information and the moral high ground. Alongside partners across the country, we were ready to help save Yestel and his family. In just a few hours, ROR made eleven phone calls to ICE Deputy Director Daniel Ragsdale, and another eleven to Director David Rivera of the New Orleans ICE office.
We all called to share our concern with the deportation of Mr. Yestel Velazquez. Sometimes we had no choice but to leave voicemail messages; other times we were able to engage in conversation. I made our first phone call to Deputy Director Ragsdale’s office and he didn’t understand why a rabbi from Chicago was calling. By our last call of the day, we had made an impression – “And where are you calling from, Rabbi?” he asked.
By Thursday, we heard great news from our partners at NDLON: ICE released Yestel from detention and granted him a new one-year stay of removal! More importantly, ICE guaranteed Yestel protection from retaliatory deportation.
I do not know if we saved a single life. But I am glad to have been part of the team that is working, one person at a time, to save the entire world.
Next time the chance comes, do you want to join the team?
Rabbi Seth M. Limmer is rabbi of Chicago Sinai Congregation, in Chicago, IL.