After Immigration Raid, a Pastor Tries to Calm the Chaos

LAUREL, Miss. -- After four years building up a bilingual Pentecostal ministry in this diverse, working-class town, Pastor Roberto Velez thought he might rest on his accomplishments.

But Velez's real trial by fire began Aug. 25. That morning, in a raid on a local transformer plant owned by local manufacturer Howard Industries, federal agents arrested 595 immigrants. Perhaps a dozen of them were members of Velez's Peniel Christian Church.

"It was terrible," he recalls. "I received calls starting at 8:10 a.m. I was having breakfast. They said, 'Pastor! Pastor! Immigration got into Howard.' I rushed over there."

Velez, a relative newcomer to Laurel, was suddenly thrust into a role he never expected to have: crisis management.

Outside the plant's perimeter, Velez waited with anxious immigrant families in a steady rain, comforting workers' children and wives. As blue-jacketed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents milled around, Velez buttonholed them, demanding information on detainees' fates.

From that day forward, he would tend non-stop to his panic-stricken flock-- and to any other families who walked through Peniel's doors, in want after their breadwinners ended up imprisoned.

Velez's role is reminiscent of those assumed by other clergy in towns upended by large-scale ICE raids this year.

In Postville, Iowa, an elderly Catholic nun and retired priest stepped up to the front-lines, after the May arrest of nearly 400 illegal immigrants at a local meatpacking plant created what they described as "a man-made" disaster. In Greenville, South Carolina, Episcopal and Catholic clergy teamed up to create a safety-net for hundreds of affected families, after a raid Oct. 7 at a poultry plant.

It was a spontaneous ecumenical response at the grassroots. Independent of top-down organization, and unconcerned about the controversy surrounding illegal immigration, individual clergy like Velez took the initiative.

Though their work was accompanied by that of organized immigrant advocates, pro-bono lawyers and faith-based charities, they were motivated solely by extraordinary circumstances and their pastoral vocations.

A bespectacled Vietnam veteran who is more than 6 feet tall, Velez had recruited a robust membership of some 80 worshippers, including recently arrived Panamanian, Mexican, and Guatemalan immigrants, as well as some longtime black and white residents.

He also parlayed his pastoral experience into a job as a badge-toting local police chaplain and interpreter. Born in Puerto Rico and raised both in Brooklyn and the island, Velez, who voted twice for President George W. Bush, moves effortlessly between Spanish and English.

After the raid, he found himself at the center of a crisis.

Velez became not only a shoulder to cry on, and the dispenser of checks underwriting families' grocery and utility bills, but also the organizer of a significant food drive, as well as an all-around advisor and translator.

One day, this sometimes gruff pastor drove 11 relatives of arrestees 200 miles to a privately run federal detention center in Jena, La. Hundreds of former Howard Industries workers were being held there, awaiting court dates. (Beginning in September, some of the workers being held in Jena began to be deported, leading their families to leave as well.)

At first, prison authorities did not want the pastor inside. ICE detention facilities are notoriously strict regarding visits. After a back-and-forth, however, they relented, and he spent three hours with prisoners and their relatives.

"Everyone began weeping," recalls the 58-year-old pastor. "It's one thing to speak with (imprisoned) relatives on the phone, but to see them in person, hold them, that's another thing."

Between the new troubles and usual pastoral duties at Peniel, Velez hardly finds time to sleep. It isn't uncommon for him to be surprised by a nap as he catches his breath in a leather armchair in the church lobby.

"Naturally, I can stretch my resources only to the point I can manage," he says, "but I haven't been afraid to put myself out there, I haven't been afraid to speak up."

Velez's role as a spokesperson was particularly important in post-raid Laurel. Fearful of being misrepresented, the local Catholic Church refused to speak to press as it moved to aid immigrants with food and support, although in other places, such as Postville, the Catholic parish served as a nerve center for media relations.

Velez was particularly well positioned to help the immigrants because of his pre-existing role as a one-person linchpin between Laurel, its civic institutions, and the immigrant community.

"I work with Pastor Velez a lot," says Laurel Mayor Melvin Mack.

In fact, the mayor's only complaint regarding Velez is that he sometimes is too ambitious as immigrants' advocate, as when he requested Mack to issue a city driver's permit to undocumented immigrants.

"If I could issue drivers' licenses I'd be working for the state," says Mack. "He means well, he's a good fellow, but there's only so much I can do."

One mid-September evening at Velez's handsome brick-walled, blue-windowed church, a handful of parishioners are absorbed in prayer, one of them nearly prone over the shallow steps to the altar, while Christian music plays over loudspeakers.

Meanwhile, in his office, the pastor counsels two immigrants in their twenties, who work at a local sawmill. Mixing scripture with stern admonitions about responsibility and discipline, Velez trains them in leadership once weekly. In turn, the men spread God's word and anti-drug messages in their neighborhoods.

Conversation moves quickly to the raid, and one student worries aloud about his family's future after his father's arrest.

"There's total uncertainty, because we don't know where all this is going to lead," says Allan, 24, a Panamanian who only gave his first name since he entered the country illegally.

"I don't know how, but one day God will straighten out the situation," replies Velez.

Within the church's nave, the worshipers have ended their prayers and mill among the shiny wood pews. Most have been touched in one way or another by the ICE raid.

"I feel comforted here, supported," says 37-year-old Leonidas Santiago, who adds that her husband is being held in Jena.

She was arrested in the raid, but like 105 other detainees was released with an ankle bracelet monitoring device so she could care for her children, which in her case include a two-year-old U.S. citizen.

Velez doesn't deny that providing aid to immigrants dovetails with his proselytizing. As he helps, he's possibly attracting new faithful to his church, which is affiliated with the Assemblies of God.

However, Velez, says he feels compelled to help the immigrants mainly because he had the "privilege and blessing" to be born a U.S. citizen in Puerto Rico.

"They don't have what I had," he says.

Velez agrees the immigrants broke the law by entering the country illegally, but notes both current presidential candidates advocate some form of immigration reform. He blames the flawed system, not desperate migrants, for the problem.

Some locals complain he's aiding illegal immigration, Velez says.

"I tell them no, I'm not aiding and abetting. You can come to my church, you won't find anybody refuged here. The people who are here aren't wanted by the authorities. I'm helping because it's humanitarian, anyone might do it. Why not me? They're my people."

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