Area Hispanics say recent events involving immigration policy at the state and national level have left their community singled out and threatened.
The Daily Reflector interviewed immigrant family members at businesses in north Greenville last week about threatened raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, detention of children in unsanitary conditions at the southern border and N.C. House Bill 370, which requires sheriffs to comply with ICE detainers.
“People around the world are suffering a lot due to their families getting separated in different ways. The Hispanic community is in a lot of trouble and in a lot of pain,” Pitt County Early College High School student Liz Ruiz said at a North Greene Street taco stand in an enclave of Hispanic businesses.
“(Immigrants) are coming here for the fact that their own country is going through a lot of stuff, a lot of gangs and violence. That’s why they’re coming here. Other than that, if they can have a chance to be here, it’s good,” Ruiz said.
A crisis created by tens of thousands of would-be immigrants arriving at the border, most from corrupt and impoverished Central American countries, prompted Congress on Thursday to approve a $4.6 billion bill to shelter and feed those detained by the U.S. Border Patrol and care for unaccompanied migrant children turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services, according to the Associated Press.
Lawmakers were under pressure created by the horrific photo of Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and daughter Valeria, who were trying to cross into the U.S. last week after fleeing from El Salvador when they were swept into the Rio Grande. Additional pressure came from revelations about brutal conditions for children detained at a the Clint Border Patrol facility, southeast of El Paso, Texas.
President Donald Trump meanwhile is promising to make good on his directive that ICE agents conduct a mass roundup of migrant families that have received deportation orders, and the N.C. Senate approved a measure directing county sheriffs to comply with ICE detainers asking them to jail people who may be in the country unlawfully for up to 48 hours. Compliance is now voluntary.
Pitt County has a significant Hispanic population. More than 11,000 lived here in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, while the county’s total population was about 179,000. More than 2,700 of the 23,500 students attending Pitt County Schools, nearly 12 percent, are Hispanic, according to school system data from 2017-18.
Several Hispanic business are concentrated along North Greene Street near Pitt-Greenville Airport. A half-dozen residents interviewed Wednesday said they are feeling increasingly isolated by the policies of President Trump and the state government. Ruiz also said she feels like Hispanics and Latinos are being targeted and profiled.
“I actually did a school project on racial profiling,” she said. “And I’ve seen how if police see a Hispanic driving a car, they go after them and make any excuse to stop them. And that’s a real struggle because it seems unfair in a big way.”
She said people in her community are hard-working members of society who contribute in many ways. “I’m really proud of where I am, and as Hispanics, we help a lot in the government. We pay taxes. We try to work, try to go to school, and it’s going to be a big change if (Trump) tries to get rid of everybody.”
A woman who works at another North Greene Street business — she asked that her name be withheld — came to the U.S. illegally with her parents more than a decade ago but they all were able to obtain citizenship under a Reagan-era policy.
“It’s kind of scary because you don’t know what you’re going to get or how it’s going to turn out,” she said about the condition for people trying to immigrate today. “I was pretty vocal about it on my Facebook page. It’s sad. Who does that? Most Americans are so afraid of how people are so inhumane to dogs, but you have children in cages.”
The woman said, like those trying to enter the country today, her parents came to the U.S. for a better opportunity.
“It was illegal, but my parents came here because it’s a better life, and we have to take advantage of it. There’s no other place like America. The opportunities you have here cannot even compare to what is offered in Mexico. It’s so easy to say, ‘Well just become legal, just go get your papers, don’t come here illegally,’ but it’s not as easy as it sounds,” she said.
The Association of Mexicans in North Carolina (Amexcan), a Hispanic and Latino advocacy group, also is located in north Greenville, on Belvoir Highway. Becky Leon, assistant director of the group, expressed disbelief about over the possibility of ICE agents rounding up families for deportation.
“Honestly, it really breaks my heart to see that,” Leon said. “I feel like a lot of people don’t usually transition their entire lives from one country to another unless there’s a really valid reason for it.”
Leon was born in the U.S. and is the first in her family to attend college. She recently graduated from East Carolina University and said she will begin her master’s program in Hispanic Studies in the fall.
“I’m Mexican-American and am a first-generation college student,” Leon said. “And I’m the daughter of immigrants, so I feel I have a personal connection with everything that goes on in the country in regard to the immigration laws.”
She said Trump and state legislators are targeting Hispanic immigrants. House Bill 370 will drive a wedge between the community and law enforcement and make residents reluctant to seek help in emergency situations.
“If they face a situation where their lives are in danger or there’s some kind of situation where they need emergency help from the police, they might be less likely to ask for that help because the new law. It could cause a lot of danger and could really backfire,” she said.
Her colleague, Paola Rodriguez, who immigrated from Honduras, said since she’s only been in the U.S. since 2009. The current immigration policies affect her on a personal level, she said.
“It’s just so heartbreaking that these people, these little kids who have absolutely no fault in anything, are dragged into these issues. It’s unexplainable. I don’t think this should be happening.”