Local News

Chatham County pastor facing deportation

Posted August 25, 2010 4:59 p.m. EDT
Updated August 25, 2010 7:38 p.m. EDT

A pastor who has spent 37 years in the United States is facing deportation to Mexico after immigration authorities arrested him because of a conviction 15 years ago.

Hector Villaneuva, 40, has a valid green card, his own parish, a wife, four children, two foster children he's in the process of adopting and a home in Chatham County.

Family and friends say he was living the American dream until immigration agents arrested him last week.

Villanueva had recently applied for U.S. citizenship, but he was denied after immigration officials discovered his conviction in California for commercial robbery.

That led to his arrest last week and his placement at the North Georgia Detention Center in Gainesville, Ga., where he is awaiting removal proceedings.

Villaneuva's only option under the law is to get a discretionary waiver from immigration court that allows him to stay because he has children and a job.

Under the law, however, an aggravated felony usually results in deportation.

Villanueva's wife says he was homeless at the time and was trying to cash a bad check when he was arrested. He pleaded guilty and served time in jail, where he started practicing Christianity.

After he was released from jail, he attended ministry training to become an ordained minister.

"He has done many things that he is not proud of," Martha Villanueva said. "Now, instead of doing those things, he teaches other people that those paths are destructive."

She said the two moved to North Carolina from Los Angeles in 2004 to open a Hispanic Baptist church.

For the past two years, he has been the pastor of Iglesia Bautista la Roca in Raleigh. A month ago, he started another church in Siler City.

Pastor Steve Moore with Emmaus Baptist Church in Pittsboro said Villanueva has worked hard in recent years to reach the Hispanic community.

"We're very concerned for him and his family, as to what will happen to him. We love him here," Moore said. "He loves this community; he's put a lot into this community, this area, trying to reach people, to help people to better their lives."

Church members say they need him back. "We love him," Moore said. "We need him."