SMITHFIELD, N.C. — 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?' "
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