Yestel Velazquez went to pick up his truck from an auto shop on a Tuesday evening three months ago. He had left it in Kenner, Louisiana, with a mechanic named Wilmer Palma, a fellow Honduran immigrant he’d met doing construction work after Hurricane Katrina. Velazquez was inside his truck, ready to drive away, when several unmarked cars pulled up and blocked the exits. He recalls men in plainclothes and bulletproof vests that said Police, along with an officer in a Kenner Police Department uniform, getting out of the cars.
Minutes later, Velazquez and Palma were lined up behind a Ford Expedition, along with more than a dozen other employees and customers of the auto shop and people from a neighboring business. They were all Latinos. One by one, the men were ordered to press their fingertips to a machine in the back of the Expedition. Palma’s hands were coated in auto grease, which briefly delayed what he and Yestel knew was inevitable.
“I always thought this would happen,” said Velazquez on the phone from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Basile, Louisiana. He spoke in a low, precise voice, as if he was too tired for bitterness. Before his arrest, Velazquez had grown accustomed to peering out the window before leaving his apartment; to keeping an eye out for the immigration agents he sometimes saw crouched behind their unmarked cars in the morning as people left for work; and to avoiding public places—even grocery stores—where other Latinos hung out, because they drew ICE like flies to honey.
New Orleans is bearing perhaps the heaviest burden of an immigration-enforcement strategy launched by the Obama administration amid the pandemonium of a presidential election. President Obama said in 2011 that he wanted to focus the government’s resources on undocumented immigrants with criminal convictions, rather than (as he put it at the time) “folks who are here just because they’re trying to figure out how to feed their families.”
The Criminal Alien Removal Initiative, which began in the spring of 2012, was one of the formal programs inside ICE designed to carry out this goal. But in New Orleans, CARI morphed into an aggressive initiative characterized by coordination between ICE and local police, and the use of mobile fingerprinting devices wielded against seemingly random groups of Latino residents. Critics in Louisiana have dubbed ICE’s practices “stop-and-frisk for Latinos.” Immigrants report being detained at checkpoint-style operations at apartment complexes, grocery stores, soccer fields and laundromats.
Of all the people ICE rounded up at the auto shop, only Velazquez and Palma had records that resulted in their being loaded into the Expedition and taken to Basile. Even so, their sole crime was having been deported once before; otherwise, their records were clean. This makes it hard to see them as criminals, but their situation is not unusual: the deportation of people convicted of entering the country illegally has tripled during Obama’s tenure. As The New York Times reported in April, two-thirds of the record 2 million people who have been deported since Obama took office committed only minor infractions or had no criminal history at all.
For Velazquez and Palma, it made no sense. “We have contributed to lift the city up,” Palma said. “Now we’re being hunted down like animals.”
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Many of the immigrants I spoke with in New Orleans have come to think of themselves as prey. Some 33,000 Latinos came after Katrina to help rebuild the city. A large number stuck around, nurturing families and starting small businesses. Most settled on the city’s fringes, in the parishes of St. Bernard and Jefferson, a slab of two-story apartment buildings and strip malls just west of the Big Easy. Today, this area is deporting undocumented immigrants without serious criminal records at a higher rate than any other jurisdiction in the country.