Derrick De Lise’s job as a restaurant and hotel consultant is relatively drama-free — except for that one time Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) showed up. De Lise, a Culinary Institute of America graduate in Poughkeepsie, New York, typically spends six to eight weeks at a client’s business, helping to refine a business concept, revamp a menu, or launch a new project. During that time, he builds relationships with restaurant and hotel owners and their employees. Some of the people he meets are undocumented immigrants — people who work hard to provide for their families and live in fear of being found out.
De Lise witnessed the manifestation of that fear in 2010, when he was consulting with a restaurant in a quiet suburb of Atlanta. It was lunchtime, and he was observing the restaurant, filled with customers. The restaurant hummed with the usual customer banter and clinking dishes. Suddenly everything came to “a screeching halt,” De Lise says, as a team wearing ICE windbreakers swept through the restaurant to arrest any undocumented workers.
“From what I could tell, they racially profiled everyone,” says De Lise, who describes the experience not merely as disruptive but as violating. “It looked like an example of institutionalized racism,” he says. “They didn’t bother with me. I’m white. I dress upper middle class, clearly professional.”
But when agents got to one of the cooks working on the line, they brusquely escorted him away. De Lise said the cook was supporting “several children and a wife back home” with income from the restaurant job. Knowing this, De Lise felt angered by what he viewed as disrespectful behavior on the part of ICE officials, and saddened when he saw the petrified look on the cook’s face as he was being taken away.
The experience left a lasting mark. After years of distancing himself from the religion of his youth, De Lise had recently begun reconnecting with his Christian faith, and its teachings: To welcome the stranger and affirm the dignity of every human being. “Look at the actual gospel message,” he says. “I don’t think you can reconcile that view with the stance of closed immigration.” Witnessing the ICE raid and its assault on these Christian values moved him to support immigration reform. “Not only is the system not working,” he says. “It’s definitively broken.”
Look at the actual gospel message. I don’t think you can reconcile that view with the stance of closed immigration.
He believes immigration reform also makes economic sense. “Why would you want to limit reform when you could have these people documented and paying into Social Security?” he wonders. “Let them pay into FICA taxes. They are already here, whether we like it or not. They are already going to be going to the hospital when they get hurt. Give them Social Security numbers. They’ll have the credit report and incentive to pay their hospital bills.”
Despite some of the current negative rhetoric regarding immigrants, De Lise is hopeful. He sees a new generation demanding justice. Young Christians, especially, are pressuring the church and older leaders to support immigration reform. De Lise is with them: After witnessing the ICE raid, he knows he never wants another immigrant to experience that again. Like many in his generation, De Lise takes Jesus’ golden rule to heart: “You are supposed to love your neighbor as yourself,” he says. “Who is your neighbor? Just the person who lives next to you?” To De Lise, it is everybody.