Standing up for Civil and Labor Rights in New Orleans

Featured Blog post

Standing up for Civil and Labor Rights in New Orleans

By Fernando Lopez, NOWCRJ Fernando Lopez is a community organizer for the Congress of Day Laborers at the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice — the group representing #1of11Million campaign participant, Yestel Velazquez. Yestel Velazquez is a New Orleans reconstruction worker. He came to …

By Fernando Lopez, NOWCRJ
Fernando Lopez is a community organizer for the Congress of Day Laborers at the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice — the group representing #1of11Million campaign participant, Yestel Velazquez.

Yestel Velazquez is a New Orleans reconstruction worker. He came to New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina to help rebuild the city. Like many other immigrant workers, Yestel saw an opportunity to contribute to the city’s reconstruction by offering his skills, sweat, and tears. It was also a chance to improve his life and support his children in Honduras.

Life in New Orleans was very difficult after Hurricane Katrina. There was little housing, food, or clean water—but there was plenty of work. Yestel worked on the reconstruction of many homes, schools, and shopping malls, and on projects for the Superdome stadium and Louisiana State University Hospital.

Yestel recalls one occasion when he was helping rebuild a school named after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He had heard Dr. King’s name mentioned before, and began doing research to learn more. He was inspired by what he learned about Dr. King and the many people who struggled alongside him for civil rights—though Yestel didn’t yet know that he would wind up in a civil rights fight of his own. 

The work was hard and dangerous, with very low wages, no benefits, and toxic conditions. Many Latino immigrant workers grew ill, or even died. But in spite of the difficulties, Yestel fell in love with New Orleans for its beauty and rich culture. Not long after, he also fell in love with his partner Zunilda. Their love grew and they set down deep roots in the city together.

With the help of Latino immigrant workers like Yestel, the city improved. Many New Orleanians who fled the storm were able to return to their communities. But years later, not only have the contributions and sacrifices of Latino reconstruction workers not been recognized, but workers and their families have become the targets of a brutal campaign of criminalization, detention, and deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

From President Obama’s first days in office, he has pursued the most aggressive deportation campaign of any American president. Part of this campaign is a program of racial profiling based community raids called the Criminal Alien Removal Initiative (CARI). Under CARI, ICE squads in New Orleans have been raiding apartment complexes, homes, grocery stores, Bible study groups, and other public places frequented by Latinos. Officers make “stop and frisk” style arrests based on racial profiling and indiscriminate mobile fingerprinting. 

Yestel fell victim to a CARI workplace raid in May of 2014. Yestel happened to be getting his truck repaired at an auto shop in a heavily Latino suburb of New Orleans when ICE agents arrived, blocked off all exits, and arrested all Latinos on site. The agents proceeded to fingerprint everyone with a mobile fingerprinting device, and Yestel was arrested, along with the shop’s co-owner, Wilmer Irias-Palma.

To expose the abuses committed during the auto-shop raid, Yestel and Wilmer, with the support of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice (NOWCRJ), filed a civil rights complaint with the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties reporting racial-profiling among other civil rights violations. In response, ICE granted both individuals a stay of removal for three months in ICE detention. This was the first obvious sign of retaliation against these individuals acting to defend their civil rights.

To fight back, Yestel and Wilmer joined with NOWCRJ’s Congress of Day Laborers, a membership organization of reconstruction workers and their families in New Orleans to organize and raise national awareness about these cases. Their efforts to expose the civil rights crisis in New Orleans were once again met with retaliation from ICE. Less than 24 hours after Yestel and Wilmer participated in a Washington, D.C., civil rights briefing by telephone from detention, ICE revoked their stays of removal and scheduled them for removal. Despite broad support from members of Congress and national civil rights, immigrant rights, and labor organizations, ICE deported Wilmer on August 8, and said Yestel would be deported the following week.

Community and national allies maintained the pressure on ICE to release Yestel and forced them to back down. On August 14, 2014, ICE released Yestel from detention and granted him a new 1-year stay of removal.

With community organizing, we were able to win freedom for Yestel, along with a New York Times editorial endorsing our demands on President Obama for strong policy protections for civil and labor rights defenders as part of administrative immigration reform. Today, Yestel continues to fight to defend civil and labor rights for immigrant communities. As a leader in the Congress of Day Laborers, he is actively organizing with community members to increase the focus on the civil rights crisis in New Orleans and to win broad policy solutions.

Yestel Velasquez, 38 (Attorney: New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice) Arrived in 2005 from Honduras (9 yrs. in US) Home: New Orleans, Louisiana

Let's Talk

Create change, one story at a time.