In the Service of Others

Just Neighbors of Northern Virginia helps young victim realize his dream of public service

“Not all immigrants are able to vote,” says Rodrigo Velasquez, former client of Just Neighbors, our Northern Virginia affiliate. “But they are still constituents. And elected leaders need to hear from all constituents.”

Legislative Aide Rodrigo Velasquez with Delegate Kathy Tran and her youngest daughter Elise, whose name was inspired by Ellis Island.
Legislative Aide Rodrigo Velasquez with Virginia State Delegate Kathy Tran and her youngest daughter Elise, whose name was inspired by Ellis Island.

This is particularly true on the state level, says Rodrigo, where “minimum wage, predatory lending, drivers’ licenses, workers’ protections, and many other issues that matter to immigrants and affect their daily lives are decided.”

Rodrigo speaks from first-hand knowledge. He’s the legislative assistant for Virginia state delegate Kathy Tran, who was featured on the cover of Time this past January as part of a wave of women newly elected to political office.

Tran is a Vietnamese refugee. She is also the first Vietnamese-American and one of the first two Asian-American women to serve in the Virginia House of Delegates.

“Her story is inspiring,” says Rodrigo of his boss. “And it resonated with my story, too.”


In December 1999, Rodrigo was five years old and newly arrived to this country with his parents and younger brother. The family came from Peru and, like thousands of other hopeful immigrants before them, they became victims of notario fraud.

But there was another, more sinister problem. Rodrigo’s father was an abusive alcoholic with an unnaturally savage temper. His beatings—using fists or whatever tool was available to inflict pain—grew worse as the years passed, and Rodrigo got more and more in his way.

“I felt strongly that I should protect my mother,” remembers Rodrigo. “Since a very young age, I took on the caretaker role.” His usual sunny countenance grows thoughtful. “This is something I continue to do to this day. I have a need to make sure there is food on the table and the bills are paid.”

Rodrigo was fourteen years old when he found out he was undocumented. For his family, that added another level of fear and stress to their daily lives.

“We all grew up believing that if you are mugged on the streets, or sexually assaulted, you don’t reach out for help, you don’t talk to the police,” he says, “because you will be the one to bear the consequences.”

Still, there came the day when the violence grew so severe that they truly feared for their lives. Rodrigo had to call the police. They had to ask for help.


Rodrigo and his family met Dominique Poirier, Just Neighbors’ legal director and consulting attorney for National Justice for Our Neighbors, through the Domestic Violence Action Center in Fairfax, Virginia. They immediately knew, says Rodrigo, that they were in good hands.

Dominique Poirier, Just Neighbors’ legal director, and her dog unwind after a long day.

“She made us feel comfortable every step of the way,” he remembers. ”She explained the process, our options, and what we could expect. You know, immigration law is very complicated. Dominique broke it down for us so we could understand.”

With Dominique’s guidance, the family applied for U Visas, a program created by Congress to encourage undocumented victims of serious crimes to come forward and work with the police without fear of deportation.

Rodrigo and his family received their U Visas. His father was deported, never to harm his family again. It took another five years for the family to receive their green cards. Rodrigo is now two years away from being eligible for U.S. citizenship.


When he was younger, at the mercy of his father’s abuse and torture, Rodrigo turned to school as his refuge. He excelled in his studies through high school and into college. He became an advocate for DREAMers and undocumented students. His own dream was to become a reporter or work in government. But he knew there were limits to his career choices.

Rodrigo Velasquez shares his story with supporters of Just Neighbors
Rodrigo Velasquez shares his story with supporters of Just Neighbors.

“There were times when I constantly felt like nothing good could ever happen to me,” he admits. “I never thought I would be working in the General Assembly. I never thought I could work in government at all. And now I’m here in Richmond working for Kathy and helping the people of her district.”

From the frightened, battered boy to the confident young man with a seemingly limitless future, it’s been a long journey for Rodrigo. He now can look forward to many years of public service, and perhaps, one day, a run for elected office on his own.

Meanwhile, he never misses an opportunity to praise the people who helped him on this incredible journey. When Just Neighbors moved into new offices last year, he was on hand to speak at their Grand Opening.

“I love Just Neighbors,” he says simply. “I’d do anything for them.”


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