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SILER CITY — The Siler City Board of Commissioners appointed seven inaugural members to the town’s first Immigrant Advisory Committee Monday, reinvigorating a years-long initiative to better serve its immigrant population.
Among the new committee members, all migrated from Latin American countries or have Hispanic ancestry. According to 2020 census data, Siler City is nearly 51% Hispanic.
All seven committee members also reside in Siler City, which proved to be the determining factor for the board.
“Looking at this from a community-based perspective, there are seven that do fit the criteria and meet the scope of the guidelines of what the resolution established for these members,” Town Manager Roy Lynch told the board, “and those are the seven that have a Siler City address and live within the community.”
The Siler City Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the formation of the town’s first Immigrant Community Advisory Committee on June 21. The idea originally emerged several years ago amid a two- to three-year community planning project called Building Integrated Communities (BIC).
Launched in 2017, this project brought the town, the Hispanic Liaison and community members — including some now leading the Immigrant Advisory Committee — together to identify immigrant residents’ needs and create a plan to address them. Forming an immigrant advisory committee was one such step in the project’s finalized plan, but the COVID-19 pandemic and personnel turnover delayed its implementation until June.
The original application period for those wishing to be appointed to the committee closed on Aug. 9, and the town had originally planned to present all applications to the board during an August or September board meeting, according to Lynch. After receiving too few applications, however, the town reopened the application process twice, extending the deadline to Nov. 1. The extended deadline also gave board members more time to review the pool of applicants, which Commissioner Chip Price had asked for last month.
“There’s some folks on here who’ve got some real good qualifications,” Price told the board on Oct. 18. “I was impressed, but at the same time, there’s several people on there — I have no clue who they are, and I personally would like to have a little bit more time to ... for lack of a better term, vet some of these people, maybe even talk to them personally.”
By Monday night, the town had received 11 applications, three of which came in during the second extended application period. The four rejected applicants applied with Durham, Chapel Hill and Pittsboro addresses, including Ilana Dubester, the executive director and founder of the Hispanic Liaison in Siler City.
“I’m very excited that the committee has finally formed and with a strong slate of candidates!” Dubester told the News + Record. “I’m also very happy that many Siler City residents applied and were selected. This is a good day for our community and for Siler City.”
According to the town’s resolution, the seven-member committee will provide a bridge between the board and immigrant residents, offer strategies to foment civic participation among immigrant residents and serve as a forum to both discuss and address the immigrant community’s concerns.
Committee members will also take the lead on implementing any and all recommendations outlined in BIC’s action plan to better serve the town’s immigrant residents.
Born in Tecun Uman, Guatemala, Hannia Benitez moved to Siler City with her mother and sister in 1998 when she was a young child. She attended Siler City Elementary, Chatham Middle and Jordan-Matthews High School, from which she graduated in 2010.
After a brief stint in Sanford, she moved back to Siler City with her husband and three children in 2016. Benitez has served a three-year term as the president of the Hispanic Liaison’s board of directors and now manages the Liaison’s Sanford satellite offices as its Lee County deputy director, a role she’s occupied since January.
“Born in Guatemala and raised in Siler City, my goal within our immigrant community, which includes me, is to ensure that our voices are heard in an equitable and just manner,” she wrote in her application to the town. “I believe that the best anchor for change is communication. When this is present, many things can be accomplished.”
Honduran native and Siler City resident Norma Jisselle Perdomo works as an immigration attorney at Vasquez Law Firm in Raleigh. Prior to becoming an attorney, she taught ESL at Central Carolina Community College.
“As an immigrant and advocate for immigrants, I have a vested interest in working with underrepresented communities,” she wrote in her letter of interest. “I was part of the initial Building Integrated Communities (BIC) project which started years ago in Siler City.”
Born in Mexico, Victoria Navarro migrated to Siler City with her family in 1996 when she was 4 years old. She works with a higher education-focused marketing firm in Raleigh to reach underrepresented communities. She’s also served as a family engagement coordinator with education nonprofit LatinxEd to help Latinx students and families through the college application process.
“While I feel fortunate to have found the connections and skills that have allowed me to feel heard in the community, I know that is not the case for many,” she wrote. “I wish to be that voice to represent the opinions and concerns for family and friends that don’t hold the same privilege as I do.”
Siler City resident and Costa Rica native Carlos Simpson manages a translation, interpretation and notarization business. A veteran, he served on the Chatham County Affordable Housing Advisory Committee in the late 2000s and ran for several local offices, including Siler City mayor and the county school board, in the early 2010s.
“I wish to serve on this committee to assist in the advancement of the Hispanic immigrant community to achieve a healthier community!” he wrote.
Born in Mexico, Danubio Vazquez Rodriguez moved to the U.S. when she was almost 10 years old. Thereafter, she was enrolled in Siler City Elementary and ultimately graduated from Jordan-Matthews. She now works in Chatham County Schools’ Pre-K department, helping families apply for one of the district’s Pre-K slots across seven schools.
“It would be my pleasure to be part of this group, because I grew up in the community … and because I feel that I have all the skill to represent our people,” she wrote. “I would like to become the leader that I found in those that taught me to speak up and not be afraid. I want people to feel included, heard, feel like they matter!”
Norma Hernandez has lived in Siler City all her life — save for a few months in Mexico, her birth country. She attended Siler City Elementary School “back when no other children looked like [her],” and ultimately graduated from Jordan-Matthews, after which she attained a bachelor’s degree in social work from UNC-Greensboro.
After working in Chatham County Schools, she joined Chatham County’s Department of Social Services, where she’s now a social worker. Both roles, she wrote in her application, have allowed her to give back to her community, but now she’d like to do more “at a macro level” for the Latino community.
“Earlier this year, I had reached out to Commissioner [Franklin] Gomez to share my concern over the need to have a Latino committee with members who were local residents,” Hernandez wrote. “While the Hispanic Liaison does amazing things for the Hispanic community, I feel they only represent a small portion of it, and our community has a large number of small business Latino owners, many formal churches, and a growing number of homeowners. It was high time Chatham County had formal representation.”
Born in California, Siler City resident Shirley Villatoro is the daughter of two green card holders from Guatemala — a vantage point, she said, which allowed her to witness firsthand the difficulties immigrants face in the U.S.
While finishing her final year at UNCG as a pre-law student, she’s working as an office manager and legal assistant in Commissioner Lewis Fadley’s Siler City law office. In the past, she’s also volunteered with the Hispanic Liaison as a peer tutor and with Chatham County as a Guardian ad Litem.
“If I am selected to the Immigration Community Advisory Committee, it is my hope to help Siler City achieve its vision by assisting the Town with immigration issues that face our very diverse population,” Villatoro wrote in her application. “I believe that our diversity is one of our strengths.”
The committee’s first organizational meeting will take place at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 30, in the Wrenn Memorial Library’s multipurpose room. There, committee members will appoint a chairperson and vice chairperson and set meeting dates, times and terms, as well as go over legal requirements with town staff.
Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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