Driving at night out of a predominantly low-income Hispanic neighborhood in Siler City, N.C., we were stopped at a police checkpoint. I asked one of the five Chatham County sheriffs what the problem was.
Martha Villanueva waits to see whether the legal system will allow her husband, Hector, to remain in the United States with his wife and their six children – all American citizens. (Photo: EthicsDaily.com)
He asked for my driver's license and shined his flashlight into my vehicle. He said it was a license check.
I handed him my driver's license and said I was from Tennessee. I said we didn't do license checks in Tennessee.
After glancing at my license, he said I could go on.
I am an Anglo, but he and his fellow officers weren't interested in Anglos. They were interested in undocumented Hispanics.
Why else would they have set up a checkpoint by the Hispanic community? And why would they run a driver's license check there?
I later told Hector Villanueva, pastor of Iglesia Bautista La Roca in Siler City, that I found it odd that a checkpoint would be set up on a Friday night outside a known Hispanic neighborhood in rural North Carolina.
"Interesting, isn't it?" he said with a smile. He said he is stopped and asked for his driver's license about once a month.
When I asked him if law enforcement had checked for documents at the community's chicken processing plants, which employ mostly Hispanics, he said he had never heard of such checks.
Why does the Chatham County sheriff's department feel comfortable targeting Hispanics with driver's license checkpoints, but neither the sheriff's department nor ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) have checked the legal documents of the employees at chicken factories?
Townsends, the chicken processor, employs some 1,200 Chatham County residents and purchases chickens from hundreds of farmers. A recent news story reported that the company is being sold to a Ukrainian billionaire for $24.9 million, hardly chicken feed for a rural county.
Much of North Carolina's poultry industry is centered in Chatham County. The county's Hispanic population has grown from 564 residents in 1990 to some 7,876 in 2008, with most of the increase in the Siler City area.
The county has a Hispanic liaison. Its mission: "to foster cultural understanding among Latinos/as and other residents of Chatham County and to empower Hispanics to overcome the challenges they face as immigrants and find their voice in the community."
To address the growing Hispanic population, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina supports a Hispanic network of pastors.
Villanueva is a member of that network.
As a church planter of Iglesia Bautista La Roca (or The Rock Baptist Church), Villanueva, a bivocational pastor, had driven into the Hispanic neighborhood on the night of the license check to pick up church youth for a cookout at his home.
Cliff Vaughn, EthicsDaily.com's media producer, and I followed him out of the neighborhood. We were spending three days with Villanueva and his family gathering footage for our forthcoming documentary on immigration.
Villanueva's story illustrates both the complexity and absurdity of America's seemingly unfixable immigration impasse.
Eight law enforcement officers arrived at Villanueva's rural home at 7 a.m. with an order for deportation some six months ago. They arrested him, put him in handcuffs.
Fifteen years ago, he had committed a crime – before he committed his life to Christ and accepted a call to the ministry. He had long since served his time in California prison.
Villanueva had entered the United States with his parents in 1973 – as a 3-year-old child. He became a legal resident with a legal Social Security card. He worked hard. He paid his taxes.
In 2007, he and his wife, Martha, applied for American citizenship. They wanted to be more than legal residents. They wanted to be full-fledged Americans.
"I wanted to have a voice," he told us. "I wanted to be able to vote. I wanted to have a voice to try to change laws, to help immigrants, to help people who needed someone to speak up for them."
His application for citizenship triggered the problems.
"If I never would have applied for citizenship, this never would have happened. I would have lived my life as any other resident does, gotten my green card every 10 years," said Villanueva.
He said he was denied citizenship because of the crime that he committed in 1995 and an American law passed in 1998 that denied felons the right to citizenship and resulted in non-citizens being deported.
Martha Villanueva, however, was sworn in as an American citizen in 2009.
Now, her husband waits to see whether the legal system will allow him to remain with his wife and their six children – all American citizens.
Martha told us in their kitchen: "My greatest fear, I suppose, is if Hector was to be deported, we would have to make a decision either to leave the country or to be split up, which is a hard decision either way."
"We would be forced to leave the country if we wanted to keep our family together," she said.
"We love this country," she added. "This is our home. We've grown up here. This is all we know. We were born in Mexico. But we don't know Mexico. We lived there only as babies. This is our country."
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.