Hector Villanueva has been doing everything right. Having lived in the U.S. since he was three years old, Hector is a legal immigrant, has a green card, works hard, and makes his community a better place. He and his wife have two children, and have been working toward the adoption of two foster children. Having previously helped to begin a church in Raleigh, Hector recently started a new church, Iglesia Bautista la Roca, in Siler City. He’s been one of the primary leaders in a network of Hispanic Baptist churches affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina (CBFNC).
But Hector made the mistake of seeking to take life in America a step further and become a U.S. citizen. The application process turned up a previous mistake: he’d been convicted of trying to cash someone else’s check some 15 years ago, when he was homeless and living in California. While serving time for the crime, Hector became a Christian, turned his life around, and put himself on the road to ministry: one example of prison leading to a true rehabilitation.
That prior record, however, combined with the country’s current paranoia over immigration concerns and “homeland security,” was enough to send five cars’ worth of agents to his Chatham County home at 6:30 a.m. on Aug. 19 so they could arrest him in front of his wife and children, haul him off to jail, and begin deportation proceedings. Under current U.S. law, as reported by Associated Baptist Press, any non-citizens convicted of an “aggravated felony” can face deportation, whether or not they have served their sentence.
Currently, Hector sits in a detention center in Gainesville, GA. Hundreds of people are praying for his release, CBFNC has sent out an “Urgent Prayer Request,” and many have written letters attesting to his character or appealed to his congressperson to intervene.
For many people, Hector’s detention has put a face on immigration issues that often seem distant to us. We may dislike political involvement, but the plight of folks like Hector — a productive pastor and devoted family man — make it clear that we cannot, in good conscience, remain unengaged.
Larry Hovis, executive coordinator of CBFNC, is one who has come to this realization. “This situation has convicted me that we can’t separate our spiritual ministry from the legal and political environment that impacts our friends’ lives everyday,” he told me. “Suddenly, a hot-button political issue, immigration reform, that has seemed far removed from our ministry, has names and faces.”
Indeed it does. As we remember Hector and pray for a just verdict in his case, let’s remember as well our responsibility to support political leaders who will seek a just and compassionate way forward as we continue to confront the thorny issues relative to immigration. Like the immigrants themselves, they’re not going away.