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How NC Nonprofits Are Helping Undocumented Immigrants Get IDs

a man taking a photo of another man for an ID card.
Jorge Valencia
Erik Valera, director for the Latino Commission on AIDS, volunteered at an ID drive organized by El Centro Hispano in Durham, where 300 people applied for ID cards.

Like many immigrants, Luis Parra left his home in Mexico looking for prosperity. When he got to the United States 20 years ago, he worked in landscaping, and then in construction.

"Now I do interior trim, which is more detail, more precise. I really like it," he said.

In a way, Parra is living his dream. He's providing for his children and his wife. He likes his work so much, he even watches TV shows about it (The Woodwright's Shop on PBS is one of his favorites).

But Parra faces a big obstacle: he's living in the U.S. illegally. And even though his children are natural-born citizens, it's often difficult for him to run even the most pedestrian of errands for them, like getting prescription medication for his son.

"They required an ID to give it to you," said Parra, who recalled using his Mexican passport to get the medication since he doesn’t have a state-issued ID card. "I was frustrated because the people at the pharmacy were looking at me like, 'Where are you coming from? Are you from this planet'?"

Credit Jorge Valencia / WUNC
About 300 people attended a recent ID drive from El Centro Hispano in Durham in an effort to get a community-issued identification card to ease their day-to-day lives.

So a few weeks ago, Parra applied for an ID card from El Centro Hispano in Durham. He was one of about 300 people at the event trying get a community-issued identification card to ease their day-to-day lives.

As Congress remains at an impasse over immigration reform, state governments have sought to address the issue on their own. In North Carolina, legislators have tried to make the state less welcoming to the estimated 350,000 people living here without proper documentation.

Concerns about police encounters, ID cards

At the ID drive, many people took the microphone and asked police officers questions. Some told stories of uncomfortable encounters they've had with police. Others talked about crimes they've witnessed.

"Police took my husband," said one woman. "My question is 'What can we do or who can move him'?"

For Durham Police Capt. DL Mont, the questions were welcome -- and so was the audience.

"I want to hopefully allay some of their fears that they can’t come to law enforcement for fear of not having papers and that immigration would be involved," Mont said. "I just want them to understand that we’re not immigration enforcement. That’s not who we are. We are municipal police officers who are here to protect and serve."

But for many Republican lawmakers, this is not a welcome attitude. This year, state legislators considered penalizing cities that de-prioritize the enforcement of federal immigration laws. They also considered prohibiting police from using community ID cards to verify a person’s identity.

"If you’re a law enforcement officer, you should enforce all the laws, not just the ones that are comfortable with you," said state Rep. George Cleveland, a Republican from Onslow County, who for years has led the state’s effort to control immigration.

Cleveland, a Marine Corps veteran, said he has no personal issue with undocumented immigrants.

"Most of them are probably honest. They’re here to work and try to get a better life," he said. "But the problem is that they’re lawbreakers. They’re illegal. They’ve broken our country’s law, and they don’t belong here."

Cleveland's philosophy can be summed up this way: He says the only people working in North Carolina should be people who are legally allowed to do so.

"Our folks need to be taken care of first," he said. “To allow illegals to come into the state, take up residence, and take employment from our citizens, I think that’s totally wrong.”

And he has a blunt message for people living here unlawfully, including Luis Parra, the carpenter raising his children here.

“If I met him, what would I say to him?" Cleveland said. " 'You’re the one who made this problem, not me. You’re the one that came here illegally, you had children in this country who became U.S. citizens because of our constitution. It’s a problem that you made yourself, you solve it.' "

For Parra, and for North Carolina as well, that solution is unclear. Cleveland’s proposals didn’t receive enough support to pass this year. State lawmakers will likely try again -- or they might wait to see if the new president takes on immigration next year.

Jorge Valencia has been with North Carolina Public Radio since 2012. A native of Bogotá, Colombia, Jorge studied journalism at the University of Maryland and reported for four years for the Roanoke Times in Virginia before joining the station. His reporting has also been published in the Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald, and the Baltimore Sun.
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