Undocumented Worker in South Carolina Refuses to Live in Fear

A Mexican immigrant living in Spartanburg without papers asks the American public for forgiveness.

Erik, 29, put his younger siblings through college in Mexico with money from his job cutting hard-wood flooring in Spartanburg.
National Journal
Alexia Fernández Campbell
July 30, 2014, 8:56 a.m.

Na­tion­al Journ­al re­cently vis­ited Green­ville and Spartan­burg to ex­plore the changes hap­pen­ing in up­state South Car­o­lina. In the com­ing weeks, Next Amer­ica will pub­lish a series of stor­ies about the people who are shap­ing this con­ver­sa­tion.

SPARTAN­BURG, S.C. — At the gro­cery store, Erik no­tices how the cashiers some­times smile at the cus­tom­ers ahead of him in line, but not at him. His dark skin and ac­cen­ted Eng­lish stand out in this South­ern city, where only 8 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion is His­pan­ic. Erik is from Mex­ico, and he’s un­doc­u­mented. Na­tion­al Journ­al is with­hold­ing his last name to pro­tect his iden­tity.

Mo­ments like these at the gro­cery store re­mind Erik, 29, how hard it is to live in South Car­o­lina without pa­pers. But he also un­der­stands why his pres­ence up­sets some people who have lived their en­tire lives in this man­u­fac­tur­ing town. “I still re­spect them be­cause we came and in­vaded their space, and maybe I both­er them,” says Erik, who ar­rived in Spartan­burg in 2001. “But they need to know that I’m not here to harm this coun­try.”

The per­cent­age of im­mig­rants liv­ing in South Car­o­lina has nearly doubled in the past dec­ade to 5 per­cent in 2012, census fig­ures show. And about one-quarter of the state’s 222,000 im­mig­rants are be­lieved to be liv­ing here il­leg­ally. Erik is one of them.

People in Spartan­burg are friend­li­er to him now than they were 10 years ago, he says, but South Car­o­lina law re­mains one of the toughest on il­leg­al im­mig­rants. For one, Erik can­not en­roll in a com­munity col­lege or pub­lic uni­versity. If he could, he would prob­ably study land­scape ar­chi­tec­ture. He can’t get a driver’s li­cense, and had to pay someone to buy a car for him be­cause he can’t do that either.

Yet the be­ne­fits far out­weigh the costs, he says. The money he’s made cut­ting hard­wood floor­ing in Spartan­burg have helped put his three young­er sib­lings in Mex­ico through col­lege.

When Erik was 15, he dropped out of school to help his par­ents sup­port his two broth­ers and one sis­ter. They lived in a small house in the Mex­ic­an state of Hidalgo, which bor­ders Mex­ico City. Erik wanted to make sure his sib­lings would fin­ish school, so he set off with his uncle to find work in the United States.

Their first at­tempt to reach South Texas failed. A Bor­der Patrol heli­copter spot­ted them drink­ing wa­ter from a golf-course pond after they had walked for three days without food or wa­ter. That same day, Erik and his uncle were sent back to Mex­ico.

They tried again four months later. This time, re­l­at­ives already in the U.S. paid a coyote $2,500 to smuggle him in through the desert. Erik, his uncle, and about six oth­er people walked for 24 hours through the Son­or­an Desert in­to Ari­zona, where a van picked them up in the middle of the night. The van stopped in Mis­sis­sippi, Louisi­ana, and Ten­ness­ee be­fore drop­ping Erik off in South Car­o­lina.

He ar­rived late one sum­mer night in Au­gust, and re­mem­bers wak­ing up the next day and walk­ing out­side a re­l­at­ive’s mo­bile home. Everything looked lush and bright, he said. Soon enough, real­ity set in.

“Every­one painted such a rosy pic­ture of the United States. That you could prac­tic­ally sweep money off the floor,” he says. “No one told me about the cold, about wak­ing up be­fore dawn, and learn­ing to cook and clean.”

Erik soon star­ted chop­ping fire­wood for 12 hours a day at a loc­al plant nurs­ery, where he made $6 an hour. Then he star­ted mak­ing 50 cents more cut­ting hard­wood floor­ing at a nearby fact­ory. He still works there, but now makes $11.

The first six months in Spartan­burg were the hard­est, Erik says. He was afraid to be left alone in a store be­cause he couldn’t speak to any­one. Even­tu­ally he star­ted tak­ing Eng­lish classes, learn­ing the lan­guage well enough to boost his con­fid­ence. It also meant he un­der­stood what people were say­ing about him.

Like the time he was shop­ping in a gro­cery store and over­heard a couple next to him in the aisle talk­ing about how il­leg­al im­mig­rants don’t pay taxes and that they should re­turn home. Maybe they didn’t real­ize he un­der­stood Eng­lish, or maybe they didn’t care if he heard. Either way, it in­furi­ated him.

“I went up to them and said, ‘Ex­cuse me, but I pay taxes just like you do,’ ” Erik says. The couple stayed quiet, and he walked off.

Erik says he’s heard that com­plaint too of­ten, and that it’s not fair. Like him, many un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants pay taxes by ap­ply­ing for an in­di­vidu­al tax­pay­er iden­ti­fic­a­tion num­ber with the IRS. Erik’s em­ploy­er uses that num­ber to de­duct taxes from his paycheck.

At work, Erik has learned to stand up for him­self like few oth­ers do. He de­scribes how his bosses of­ten yell at un­doc­u­mented work­ers and treat them harshly, something they wouldn’t dare do to cowork­ers who are white or black. Oth­er im­mig­rants take the ab­use be­cause they’re afraid, Erik says, but he re­fuses to live in fear any­more.

Not long ago, when a man­ager yelled at him, Erik snapped back. “I told him, ‘We are not an­im­als, you don’t have to yell. I un­der­stand Eng­lish,’ ” he says. He re­mem­bers how every­one stopped and stared at them. The man­ager nev­er yelled at him again.

Erik doesn’t feel like he lives in the shad­ows. He just doesn’t get the op­por­tun­it­ies oth­ers do, he says. And he’s had to watch friends and re­l­at­ives get de­por­ted after po­lice de­tained them in traffic stops. Po­lice have pulled Erik over sev­en times in the past few years, but he was for­tu­nate to only re­ceive warn­ings or cita­tions.

Des­pite the un­wel­com­ing at­ti­tude to­ward un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants, Erik has no plans to leave Spartan­burg. His uncles and cous­ins live here, he’s made friends and joined a loc­al Baptist church. The money he’s been send­ing back to Mex­ico helped buy his par­ents a new house and put his sib­lings through col­lege. His broth­er is now an en­gin­eer, his sis­ter is a nurse, and the young­est is study­ing psy­cho­logy. That makes everything worth­while, he says.

“They’re not here do­ing manu­al labor, work­ing for a boss who’s telling them to do more,” says Erik, who hasn’t seen his fam­ily in 13 years.

Erik ad­mits he got hope­ful when Pres­id­ent Obama an­nounced de­port­a­tion re­lief to thou­sands of young un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants in 2012. But Erik barely missed the cutoff age to qual­i­fy. “I star­ted to dream that maybe I could buy a house and travel back home to see my fam­ily,” he says.

Eriks says he doesn’t ex­pect to get Amer­ic­an cit­izen­ship, but would be happy with “a doc­u­ment.” He also wants the Amer­ic­an pub­lic to for­give him.

“I ask for their for­give­ness be­cause I have broken the law. I didn’t come here be­cause I wanted to, I came here be­cause I needed to. But I did break the law,” he says. “I also ask them for a bit of pa­tience. We aren’t per­fect, but we try to do everything to fol­low the law now that we’re here. We want to bless this coun­try.”

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