When news trickled out last week that Hector Villanueva had been granted relief from the threat of deportation, he wasn’t the only one who felt relief. It had been a long, nervous year.
I first wrote about the case just over a year ago, shortly after five carloads of various immigration and law enforcemet officials showed up at his house at 6:30 a.m., arrested him in front of his wife and children, and hauled him off to a deportation center.
Villanueva, a popular pastor and leader among Hispanic Baptists affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina (CBFNC), had been in the United States since he was three years old, when his family moved from Mexico to California. He speaks English and Spanish equally well. His wife and six children (two of them adopted) are U.S. citizens.
Villanueva wanted to become a citizen of his adopted country, too, but his application led instead to incarceration when it was discovered that he had a prison record. Sixteen years ago, poor and homeless and living in California, Villanueva had tried to cash a check that wasn’t his. He served a year in jail for that — far more time than many have pulled for much larger crimes.
While in prison, Villanueva became an avid follower of Christ, and active in Baptist life. He came to North Carolina in 2006, and with the help of pastor Javier Benitez and the CBFNC Hispanic Network, became active in church planting. He currently serves as the bivocational pastor of Iglesia Bautista la Roca in Siler City, doing home repairs to supplement his income.
After Villanueva’s arrest, CBFNC friends rallied around him and posted bail while he awaited a hearing. Under a deportation order for a crime that was not a deporting offense when he committed it, Villanueva’s only hope was that the judge might grant a “discretionary waiver” allowing him to stay because he has a wife and children to support.
After a year of waiting, Villanueva had his day in court on Sept. 2. Friends and supporters from CBFNC not only paid his legal bills, but showed up, three dozen strong, in the Charlotte courtroom where Villanueva appeared before Judge Barry Pettinato. A string of character witnesses were prepared to testify, but none were called: when Judge Pettinato heard Villanueva’s own fervent testimony and saw the evidence of support from those gathered in the courtroom, he quickly granted Villanueva the needed waiver of relief. It was simply the right thing to do.
Villanueva’s case throws a spotlight on ways in which “homeland security” laws targeting truly dangerous people can also ensnare persons whose presence makes America a better nation. The positive outcome offers some measure of hope for others in similar situations, like Nazry Mustakim, a native of Singapore who works for Mission Waco, a faith-based non-profit organization in Waco, Texas. Like Villanueva, Mustakim found Christ after getting into trouble with the law, and has turned his new life into one of service as he and his wife Hope work among people who live on the margins of life.
As we recognize the good work of those who supported Villanueva and thank God for the good verdict in his case, we pray for Mustakim and for others who seek justice and whose contributions will strengthen our country — if they are allowed to stay.