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'Undocumented workers are also human beings'

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Posted at 8:55 AM, Dec 07, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-07 08:55:30-05

CINCINNATI — Hope brought Flequer Vera to the United States over and over again.

He was 16 when he first came on a tourist visa from Lima, Peru. His family’s commercial construction business was failing and parents Victor, 76, and Gladys, 70, sent Vera, the youngest of five children, to have a better life.

Vera lived with his relatives, Carlos and Angelina, now retired and in their 70s, in Brooklyn, N.Y., and balanced high school with odd jobs in cleaning and construction.

But when he was just one class away from graduation, his visa expired, forcing him to return home.

“I couldn’t cope with school and work. I fell behind. I gave up,” said Vera, 36.

Back in Peru, he gave private tutorials on English and had a son, Yomar, now 14, who lives with his mother Gisela, 36.

Hope brought Vera back to the United States. And while working on his GED, looking for admission to college and working in construction, Vera’s visa ran out. Again.

“I decided to stay on. I thought it will be easy to find a way to get documented, get a job and pay my bills,” Vera said.

He worked for $65 a day on construction sites “with no protective equipment, no overtime and no guarantees.”

“I knew I was being exploited like thousands of others. But I was so tired I didn’t even have the energy to look for another job or for help,” he said.

In 2004, after he was laid off, Vera moved to Cincinnati, where he met, fell in love with and married Ellen Dienger, 31, an American citizen, who works for United Food and Commercial Workers 75.

“My life started then,” said Vera simply.

He eventually earned a degree in business administration from the University of Cincinnati and today is a small-business owner and a community leader who is determined to help undocumented workers have better lives. Two years ago, Vera began Sustainergy Cooperative, which seeks to help homeowners reduce energy bills. And he began to aggressively and publicly stand up for undocumented workers by joining the AMOS Project, a coalition of congregations dedicated to social justice, and serving on Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley's Task Force on Immigration.

One of the most high-profile cases Vera worked on was that of Julio Tellez, 29, an undocumented immigrant. Tellez, who had come from Mexico as a child, was facing deportation after a routine traffic stop revealed his immigration status.

Vera fought hard for Tellez, who was eventually allowed to remain in the country under President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action Plan, which grants children of illegal immigrants “worker’s status."

“I am proud of who I am. My struggles shaped me. Undocumented workers are also human beings who just want to have a chance,” Vera said. “We are not criminals. We don’t enjoy breaking the law. We came from impossibly difficult circumstances, and we work long hours in hard, dirty jobs that Americans don’t want to do.”

Vera says immigrant labor built America and helps keep it running through jobs in construction, hospitality and manufacturing.

Dienger was drawn to Vera‘s passion for social causes.

“I saw in him a person who was always ready to stand up for what was right, even if it was scary. I admire his commitment to helping people,” said Dienger, who has dedicated her life to ensuring a better quality of life for workers.

She says she shares the same core values as Vera: They want equal rights for all. Both say America must have compassion for immigrants and Syrian refugees “who need support and help.”

“Nobody leaves everything they know and love to come to an unfamiliar country where they don’t even understand the language. They come because they have no other choice,” Dienger said.

Tellez says Vera is the strongest advocate a community could have. “He is the most amazing, kind-hearted person I know. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here in America today.” 

“He got me the pro bono attorney and got the whole community to support me, raised awareness on undocumented immigrants and got the media interested. I owe him for everything.”

Tellez is vocal about undocumented immigrants.

“We have a right to dream, too. In my case, I was 6 years old when I was brought here. America is the only country I have ever known. Why send me back? This is a big generous country with many resources. Why not help immigrants and refugees like the Syrians to have better lives?”

Brennan Grayson, 40, a civil rights attorney who works in immigration, served on the mayor’s task force with Vera. He was impressed with Vera, whom he said was committed to finding solutions. Vera suggested, for example, that the city create an alternate photo ID that the police would accept.

And because some undocumented immigrants are afraid to go into a government office, this ID will be issued by a nonprofit, the Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati, the task force agreed. The details are being finalized. 

“If it wasn’t for strong voices like Flequer’s, this experience could have been a total waste of time. He made a major contribution. This idea will transform the lives of many immigrants,“ said Grayson, who is also the director of Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center, an organization that helps low-wage workers and immigrants understand their rights in the workplace.