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North Carolina Immigrant ID Card Praised by Police Is in Jeopardy

In North Carolina, an immigrant ID card created by a faith-based group has support from local police, but state lawmakers want to ban its use.
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GREENSBORO, N.C. — In a city that gave birth to lunch counter sit-ins of the civil rights movement, an identity card created by a faith-based group has made undocumented immigrants feel they belong.

The Faith Action ID card was created four years ago to give undocumented immigrants in the area a form of identification and prevent their arrests for not providing proper identifications. It's not government issued and can't be used as a driver's license, but 16 local law enforcement jurisdictions in the state accept the ID.

But the North Carolina General Assembly wants it gone and has proposed legislation for the third year in a row to ban it as part of a larger immigration bill. Opponents say there are not enough checks on people who get them. Others say they facilitate illegal immigration. The legislation has been passed by the Senate and is awaiting House committee approval.

“We thought since the Trump administration was cracking down on immigration so hard that maybe the state, some in the state who have not particularly been friendly to immigrants, might lay off a little bit this year, but unfortunately they've kind of doubled down," said the Rev. David Fracarro, director of of FaithAction, which founded the program that led to the ID. Fracarro is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.

Fracarro said yanking the ID would erode the trust that the card helped build between immigrants and law enforcement here.

Image: Undocumented immigrants, along with documented citizens, apply for their FaithAction ID cards
Undocumented immigrants, along with documented citizens, apply for their FaithAction ID cards at an ID drive sponsored by FaithAction, a faith based immigrant outreach organization, in Greensboro, North Carolina.Victor J. Blue / for NBC News

“If people aren't reporting crimes it means the entire community suffers and it's less safe. And so we did five dialogues at houses of worship where over time, trust was built. And officers opened up about their own immigration stories and their parents' immigration stories,” said Fracarro.

"I think a lot of newcomers sometimes associate local law enforcement with Immigraiton and Customs Enforcement. So the distrust was understandable,” said Fracarro.

FaithAction has issued more than 4,000 ID cards.

Fracarro said much of the opposition to the program stems from misunderstanding and misinformation.

“I just wish they would lay off and recognize that this is something our state should be proud of not trying to just shut down. That these are human beings, it's too late, we already care for them, we care for them and we're willing to protect them so we're not going anywhere.”

"I felt like I was starting to get my identity back"

Miguel Angel Fuentes is an undocumented immigrant who has lived in Greensboro for 15 years. He and his wife, Edith have one daughter, Valeria, age 8.

“When I got here was in 2002. I was 19 years old, trying to decide what I was gonna do with my life. I decided that I wanted to risk my life and make the journey across the border. Me and my lovely girlfriend at the time, we decided to head out north and see what destiny had prepared for us," Fuentes said.

For 14 years, Fuentes has worked as a painter for the same boss. On a cloudy Friday afternoon, he pulls into his home from work — his clothes, shoes and hair are dusted in white paint.

Fuentes speaks with a grinning, slow, southern lilt. “You'd probably think that I'm from somewhere up in the mountains, from Appalachia. It just so happened that I picked the accent, and I love it. I love the culture, the southern hospitality," he said.

Image: Miguel, his wife Edith, and their daughter Valeria
Miguel, his wife Edith, and their daughter Valeria hang out at their home in Greensboro, North Carolina. Miguel and Edith came to the US together in 2002, and built a life here.Victor J. Blue / for NBC News

For years the family had driver's licenses that allowed them to work and save and eventually buy their home. But in 2006, the state began demanding proof of citizenship to get a license, so they went without. For them, the FaithAction ID has provided some degree of peace of mind.

“We heard about the FaithAction ID program and we attended one of their talks and we learned that the police and city officials were welcoming this ID. It felt like I was starting to get my identity back," Fuentes said. "It felt like I was somebody again. I had a card that had my name. I had a card that had my picture. I felt like I belonged to someplace; I was not just in the shadows.”

The family sits down to dinner: sopes, small round thick tortillas with beans and meat, topped with a homemade salsa. Fuentes said he’s felt the pressure lately as the politics surrounding immigration has shifted.

“With all this climate, we have been taking precautions of not going out as often. Trying to make our routes shorter, trying to get our groceries in one trip, from one place. I think the faith action ID helps you out, to identify, to make sure that people in government places know who you are, that you're not trying to do anything wrong.”

“We are always with the uncertainty of what could happen. What is gonna happen the day that I get pulled over, I get checked, and I get sent to our local prison, and then I get checked for my documents. What will happen to the rest of my family? That if I get deported, they will struggle to make the next meal?” he says of his family.

Miguel, Edith, and Valeria hold hands as they walk through the festivities at a “Dia de los Niños/ Dia de los Libros” fair in downtown Greensboro. Miguel is a director at a local arts organization, Casa Azul, and hs constructed a cardboard house for the festival. He gathered a ton of art materials so kids can enter the house and write on it’s walls about their feelings.

Image: Miguel helps out a boy as he participates in a public art project at a booth
Miguel helps out a boy as he participates in a public art project at a booth for the arts organization Casa Azul at "Dia de los Ni?os, Dia de los Libros" in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina.Victor J. Blue / for NBC News

“It's funny, that we sometimes feel that we are part of society, we are part of this town, part of this state and this country, because we are allowed to pay our taxes. We are allowed to buy a car, but we can't drive it on the road. We are allowed to buy a house, pay the taxes, but you can't live in that house, you are a criminal, you should be living on the other side of the border. You are allowed to shop in our places, our grocery stores, but we don't want you here, you're not welcome. You are allowed so many things, but there's always ‘BUT,’” Fuentes said.

On a stage nearby an elementary school class sings songs in Spanish, and folkloric dancers perform.

“On the other hand, a lot of people have opened their hearts, have opened their doors and welcomed us and let us know that we are valued in this society, we are welcome," he said.

A need for immigrants' trust

Burlington is a small town 30 minutes from Greensboro. A year and half ago, Chief Jeffrey Smythe, of the Burlington Police Department decided to participate in the FaithAction ID program.

“So we met and we did the foundational stuff," Smythe said. "And then it was so exciting the first couple of times we did an ID drive and there's 300 and 400 people there lining up at 2 in the morning, in the freezing cold, to get an ID card. You just go, this is the right thing to do.”

Smythe said that police chiefs "are put in very difficult circumstances" when it comes to immigration. He thinks it's an issue about border and national security and that is the federal government's purview.

Image: Burlington Police Chief Jeffrey Smythe
Burlington Police Chief Jeffrey Smythe poses for a portrait at his headquarters in Burlington, North Carolina. He believes that the FaithAction ID program creates deeper connections between undocumented members of the community and the police.Victor J. Blue / for NBC News

He developed deep experience policing immigrant communities from 27 years working in Arizona law enforcement. “I recognize and believe strongly that my role in being able to protect the Latino community is fundamentally based on my ability to forge relationships with them," Smythe said.

This is especially important for Latinos who hail from countries "where the police and the government do not behave in honorable and professional ways — sometimes their country of origin is one where the police were corrupt. The government really negatively impacted the way they lived," he said.

"We've got some significant burdens to overcome and we've found that the Faith Action ID Program was a vehicle that we could use to build trust and build relationships," he said.

This is not the first time the Assembly has tried to scuttle the IDs. Soon after the program's inception. lawmakers passed a bill making it illegal for state agencies to accept the IDs. But the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police pushed back.

“At the last minute, we got a sensitive legislator to put a rider on there that said the cops can look at whatever (ID) they need to," Smythe said. "Otherwise we'd (have) been taking a bunch of people to jail (even though) we knew who they were; they should have gotten a ticket on the side of the road and sent home. We're filling the jails, potentially, with people who don't need to be there."

Every year since, the Assembly has tried to remove the provision. In late April, the North Carolina state Senate passed SB 145, a bill forcing local governments and higher education institutions to work with the federal government to enforce immigration law. It repeals the exemption allowing police to accept ID's like Greenboro's.

Image: Undocumented immigrants, along with documented citizens, apply for their FaithAction ID cards
Undocumented immigrants, along with documented citizens, apply for their FaithAction ID cards at an ID drive sponsored by FaithAction, a faith based immigrant outreach organization, in Greensboro, North Carolina.Victor J. Blue / for NBC News

Smythe isn’t looking forward to policing without the ID in place, should the bill be signed into law.

“We're put in this place by the Legislature to enact their political agenda and it affects people's lives, ours and theirs, and so I'm a little fearful that there will be language that's passed that is simply untenable — not sensitive to the realities of policing," Smythe said. "And we're going to have to then apply this at night in these horribly gray situations and nothing good for the cops can come of that.”

Smythe adds that as much as some conservatives may want it, you can't manage the "functional deportation" of millions of people from the country.

"So, we gotta keep them safe, and we do that," he said. "And the very best platform that we have seen has been the FaithAction ID card to really, bring people to us in droves.”

"We are a nation of laws"

Burlington is the biggest city in Alamance County. Sheriff Terry Johnson was first elected to his post there in 2002. Johnson has been a consistent voice for greater involvement of local law enforcement in immigration enforcement and a vocal Trump supporter.

Image: Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson
Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson poses for a portrait in Burlington, North Carolina.Victor J. Blue / for NBC News

He opposes the FaithAction ID program, and does not participate in it. “I can see a problem with some of these FaithAction IDs, people being able to obtain them without proper vetting and proper identification and they can use them in a lot of ways to cause problems for law enforcement and citizens.”

“If you're gonna come here illegally to start with, at least follow the laws of our land," Johnson said. "We are a nation of laws. And if I expect my people that were born here in America to follow them, I certainly expect anybody else to.”

Johnson was vindicated in federal court last year after an eight-year Department of Justice investigation into racial profiling of Latinos. The courts ruled there wasn't sufficient evidence to prove he was racially profiling.

“Certainly I feel like that if there's proper vetting done, there should be a pathway for those individuals that want to come here to make a better life for their families. And I don't have a problem with that. I feel like that President Trump is trying to do something about developing a proper way for that to happen," he said.

"Part of this community"

Raul García is from Guanajuato, Mexico, and has lived in Greensboro for 18 years. He has six children and 14 grandchildren. He worked for many years in painting and construction, and is now semi-retired. On the weekends, he fires up the grills outside his home and grills ribs and chicken for folks that come by to pick up a weekend lunch for their families. He and his wife Zoila are deeply involved with the Catholic Church. “There is no evil that lasts a hundred years- nor men that can endure it," García said.

Image: Raul Garcia holds his FaithAction ID card
Raul Garcia holds his FaithAction ID card at his home in Greensboro, North Carolina. Mr. Garcia and his family have become deeply established in Greensboro since coming to the US undocumented in 1999 from Guanajuato, Mexico.Victor J. Blue / for NBC News

He and his family consider Greensboro a second home. He says he has always felt welcome here, that he has many American friends. "We have felt the warmth of the people. Never, never in all my years that I’ve been here, have I felt racism. I know it exists, but I haven’t lived with it, and I thank God for that. My kids grew up here, they went to school here. Here, they went from being kids to adults and they’ve been a part of this community.”

García enjoys following politics and reading up on the new administration. “I believe for that for every 10 people that voted for the president, six were fooled. I liked Bernie, but also Jeb Bush. His wife is from Guanajuato," he said. "But we believe there will be a change. Hopefully, hopefully, he (Trump) will keep on reconsidering, and continue to understand in his heart that the United States is a country of immigrants and that all of us, legal or illegal, need to lend a hand to each other.”

On a sunny spring day in April, García and his family gathered at the massive, five-bedroom home of his daughter Rocilla and her husband Juan for Juan’s birthday. It's in an upscale development; the kids played in a bouncy house, mom’s gossiped around tables set up under a huge white tent and the American born friends of their own teenagers huddled over plates of García's barbecue.

Image: Raul Garcia helps serve his home cooked barbecue
Raul Garcia helps serve his home cooked barbecue to guests at a birthday party for his son in law, Juan Espitia, at his home in Browns Summit, North Carolina.Victor J. Blue / for NBC News

At 3 p.m., a group of mariachis traipsed out onto the deck, played "Happy Birthday" and entertained the crowd. It was a scene that could have played out in any tony suburb. García hugged his mother-in-law as the family gathered around to welcome her.

“The future — not only for Latinos but for all immigrants — is a bit dark at best. But you know, after the storm comes the calm. The sun comes out, and we have hope that this change will come."

For him, that change is immigration reform.

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