Nation & World

Tolerance wears thin

Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell's territory is one of country stores and fading tobacco barns; but increasingly his work -- and his words -- reach far beyond his rural county. Advocates and politicians across the state have come to know him as the lawman with the deep country twang who makes incendiary comments about "drunk Mexicans."

"Look at that," he says, pointing to tiendas that have cropped up amid the barbecue joints. "You can't even read the durned sign. Everywhere you look, it's like little Mexico around here."

Bizzell is a farm boy so steeped in traditional American culture that he won't even eat spaghetti, much less a taco. Since becoming sheriff a decade ago, he has watched a Hispanic influx change the rural landscape of his home county. Its population is now 11 percent Hispanic.

These mostly undocumented workers have helped build a new economy, fueling a construction boom and harvesting most of the county's crops. But some residents of this once insular place see them as a threat, opening Spanish-speaking businesses, crowding hospitals and schools, even monopolizing aisles at Wal-Mart.

Bizzell has emerged as the face of the backlash.

But to travel with Bizzell is to understand not only the anger, but also the ambivalence that surrounds an intensifying crackdown on illegal immigrants.

In one breath, he condemns illegal immigrants for "breeding like rabbits" and spreading a culture of drunkenness and violence. In the next, he sympathizes with laborers who know the same calloused-hand work that he did as the son of a farmer.

One day he says immigrants take American jobs. The next he says there is work for anyone willing to pull his weight. He resents the increasingly Hispanic face of his county, but he acknowledges that immigrant workers have enriched many of his constituents.

Bizzell is, in many ways, the face of a state coping with a problem the federal government has failed to solve, struggling to reconcile long-held resentments with its essential humanity.

"Everywhere I go," Bizzell says, "people say, 'Sheriff, what are we going to do about all these Mexicans?' "

Politically astute jabs

Bizzell's strident rhetoric -- his claims that illegal immigrants "rape, rob and murder" American citizens, fail to pay taxes and drain social services -- has had clear political benefits.

It has cemented his popularity among conservative voters and, in a place with no Hispanic leaders, has drawn little organized opposition. He also enjoys strong support from other local political leaders. "Everybody in this county sleeps a little better because he's here," said Linwood Parker, the mayor of Four Oaks.

His blunt talk helped propel him to the presidency of the N.C. Sheriffs' Association.

Before giving up that post in July, he urged the state's 100 sheriffs to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. He has helped make North Carolina one of the most aggressive states in the nation for deporting illegal immigrants.

He has also become an ally of Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who has made deporting criminal illegal immigrants a centerpiece of her campaign. Dole paints Bizzell as a sheriff dealing with the criminal toll of illegal immigration.

"He's just like the vast majority of sheriffs in North Carolina," said Brian Nick, Dole's chief of staff. "He'll be the first to tell you that he has no inclination to go around and round up people, that he's focused on a criminal element."

The reality is blurrier.

Hispanics, a large share of whom are in the country illegally, have been responsible for more than a third of drunken-driving charges in Johnston County in the past five years. In March 2007, Luciano Tellez, an illegal immigrant, sped through a stop sign and killed a Clayton man and his 9-year-old son in a fiery explosion, then sped away. Empty beer cans littered his car.

But overall, as Johnston's Hispanic population has grown, its crime rates have fallen. In the past decade, as illegal immigration has surged, Johnston County's rate of violent crime has dropped by almost half, according to the State Bureau of Investigation. Property crimes are also down.

In private conversations, Bizzell reveals that his deeper concerns, and those of his constituents, are as much about changing demographics as about crime.

"How long is it going to be until we're the minority?" he said one night in August, as he drove the darkened streets of Smithfield.

Into the trailer park

Ask Bizzell to quantify the problems immigrants have caused, and he will steer his cruiser into one of several trailer parks inhabited largely by Hispanic laborers. Across the county, local landowners have profited from renting modest, sometimes dilapidated, trailers to this new population.

He will roll slowly through communities of single-wides that draw stark lines against a barren landscape of dirt and weeds, pointing out cars with no license plates and piles of garbage. "Mexicans are trashy," he will remark.

He will count the children playing in each yard, talking alternately about his pity for their plight and the future tax burden they will pose to society.

One Saturday evening, Bizzell pulled into Bell Hope mobile home park, a collection of rusting trailers outside Smithfield. He pointed to a trash can overflowing with empty cans of Bud Light. He saw a group of men gathered around a pickup truck, and he guessed that they would soon be fighting or driving drunk.

He saw people dancing in the grass between two trailers, a gaggle of children playing nearby.

"All they do is work and make love, I think," he said. "Look at all those kids right there."

Many of the Hispanic residents of Bell Hope are part of a community that stretches back to Veracruz, Mexico, where they lived before migrating for the promise of construction jobs. They settled together, forming a kind of extended family that shares meals and takes care of each other's children. Many have been there more than a decade.

None who gathered last week to talk with a reporter knew the sheriff's name, but all had noticed the increased presence of law enforcement. They feel targeted by frequent traffic checkpoints that Bizzell organizes, which often catch illegal immigrants because they cannot get driver's licenses. They now fear deportation that could come not just from "la migra," federal immigration officials, but from local officers.

Feelings of persecution

Jose Sanchez, a longtime resident of the park, is baffled by the change. He said problems in the immigrant community have decreased in recent years, as single men were joined by their wives and children. At Bell Hope, he said, residents who brought drug activity and violence were forced out years ago.

He admitted that men gather to drink beer on the weekends, but he said they are mostly low-key gatherings of friends and family. Sanchez, an illegal immigrant, gave only a part of his full name.

Many immigrants, including the residents of Bell Hope, now have networks. Those who have valid licenses go out first and warn others of checkpoints.

Maricela Tovar, a Mexican immigrant who earned legal status this year after living illegally in Johnston County for eight years, said the crackdown has discouraged drunken driving. But she said it has also made many Hispanics feel as if law officers are looking for excuses to deport them.

She says she worries about her family's future in a place where immigrants are no longer welcome. But with few prospects in Mexico and three American-born children, she's just hoping to ride out the storm.

She, like many immigrants with deep roots in the county, said they had no plans to leave.

Feliciano, an illegal immigrant who came to Johnston two decades ago, declined to give his last name. "One thing I'm proud of is, now I can feel a little bit of the persecution that God has felt," he said. "We're nothing."

Reared on the farm

Bizzell is a fit and youthful 49, but in many ways he is the face of the Old South. He lives on the farm where he was reared, on a road named for his grandfather, near the community of Princeton.

Even now, a decade after leaving farming to become sheriff, he is the antithesis of the suit-wearing bureaucrat. "I do respect 'em for one thing," he says of Hispanic immigrants. "They work hard. I know about working in a field in hundred-degree heat. I know what it's like to work from sunup to sundown."

Bizzell is one of eight children of a farmer who worked weekends as a Pentecostal preacher. He grew up toiling in the fields, playing in the hayloft, swapping stories at his older brother's country store, kneeling to pray before every meal. He dropped out of school in the 10th grade, set on working side by side with his father.

His initial instinct, as a farmer and a Christian, was to welcome North Carolina's first wave of immigrants. He remembers the Hispanic migrant laborers who began coming to North Carolina in the 1980s as "the best workers the farmers had ever seen." His own farm used a few Hispanic workers to help with harvest.

He became sheriff in 1998 and had little to say about immigration until 2006, when he hired a Hispanic outreach officer. He said he wanted to build trust in the growing immigrant population and cited concerns about Spanish-speaking crime victims.

"This is really the first step in accommodating the Hispanic folks in our communities," he said then.

'Like you're the enemy'

Bizzell blames Hispanics for his changed attitude. He says they went from revering the law to openly disrespecting his officers.

He demonstrated his point by waving, from inside his cruiser, to a man walking through a trailer park. When the man gave a blank stare, Bizzell said smugly, "See. They hardly ever wave back. It's like you're the enemy."

He says that in the past few years, he started hearing about immigration everywhere he went, at churches, club meetings and parades. He says people complained of neighboring homes filled with crowds of Hispanics who drank heavily, urinated outside, fired guns in celebration.

"When people think about illegal Mexicans, you know the first thing they think of?" Bizzell says -- "driving drunk and shooting."

Across the county, many Johnston natives are looking at immigrants in a new light.

"They're not the same as they used to be; they were so polite," said Sarah Burns, a retired truck driver from Smithfield whose husband once used immigrant labor on his farm. "Now, they're the rudest people I've ever seen. Like at Wal-Mart, they stand right in the middle of the aisle and they won't move for anything."

Jenee Lee, a laid-off factory worker from Four Oaks who was eating barbecue with Burns, added a complaint. "They talk their Spanish so you can't understand a word they say," she said. "They get treated better than we do."

Bizzell spouts many of the same concerns that are voiced in barbecue joints and country stores about immigrants who take services to which they're not legally entitled, who have legions of children dependent on welfare. He insists that they pay no taxes, even though records show that many do pay income tax and all pay the state's sales and property taxes.

But in quieter moments, he concedes that some of the complaints arise from pettiness.

"There's a lot of jealousy," he said one day. "They'll say, 'Mexicans moved into our neighborhood, and they're driving a Cadillac Escalade. Lord, we worked all our lives and we never had one of those.' "

Bizzell thinks wistfully of a time when he didn't have to deal with tricky matters of race and culture. He says without reservation that the Johnston County of his youth --where he left his door unlocked and never saw a taco stand -- was a better place.

Back then, most Hispanics in Johnston County were farmworkers passing with the harvest.

"They were all in a group, down a path somewhere in a camp," Bizzell says. "It was bad for them as human beings. But we didn't have the problems then that we got now."

(Staff researcher David Raynor contributed to this report.)