Working the Drive-Thru Window for 12 Years Without Papers

An undocumented woman from Honduras counts the days until her deportation from South Carolina.

Brenda, an undocumented immigrant from Honduras, lives in Spartanburg with her husband and two American sons. She avoids leaving her house out of fear that police will stop her at one of their frequent traffic checkpoints.
National Journal
Alexia Campbell
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Alexia Campbell
July 22, 2014, 7:29 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. — Brenda won’t let her two boys play soc­cer be­cause she’s too afraid to drive them to prac­tice. She wor­ries that po­lice might pull her over and dis­cov­er that she’s un­doc­u­mented, so she only leaves the house to go to the gro­cery store or to work.

Brenda asked Na­tion­al Journ­al to with­hold her last name out of fear that her com­ments might af­fect her im­mig­ra­tion case. She says she knows at least six fam­il­ies that have been sep­ar­ated in re­cent years as part of the state’s crack­down on il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion. Un­til March, South Car­o­lina law re­quired po­lice to de­tain drivers sus­pec­ted of be­ing in the coun­try il­leg­ally. Al­though a leg­al set­tle­ment banned that prac­tice, po­lice still nab im­mig­rants at traffic check­points throughout the com­munity.

“Some­times I have im­port­ant things to get done, but I get so nervous that I won’t go out,” says Brenda, who came to Spartan­burg in 2000 from Hon­dur­as. “Be­cause we can’t get driver’s li­censes, we’re all stuck in our homes.”

Brenda, 35, works the as­sembly line at a product-pack­aging plant in Spartan­burg, box­ing everything from dog food to wa­ter fil­ters. It’s four miles away from the mostly white, work­ing-class neigh­bor­hood where she lives with her hus­band and sons. On a re­cent day off from work, Brenda and a friend chat in her liv­ing room about how hard it is to live in a city that doesn’t want them. Even so, Brenda says she’s glad that her sons—who are Amer­ic­an cit­izens—don’t have to live in a house with a dirt floor or quit school to put food on the table as she did in Hon­dur­as.

Hur­ricane Mitch des­troyed her coastal vil­lage of Sabá in 1998, and Brenda’s fiancée left to find work in the United States. For two years he washed dishes in Spartan­burg and saved money to bring Brenda to South Car­o­lina. He man­aged to get tem­por­ary pro­tec­ted status, which grants tem­por­ary work au­thor­iz­a­tion to people from cer­tain coun­tries af­fected by dis­aster. By the time he saved enough money, Brenda no longer qual­i­fied for TPS.

But that didn’t stop her from mak­ing the trip. After all, Hon­dur­as was suf­fer­ing from wide­spread hun­ger and un­em­ploy­ment. In 2000, Brenda flew to Mex­ico, rode a bus to the bor­der, and swam across the Rio Grande in a rub­ber tire. As she walked in­to South­ern Texas, a bor­der-patrol agent stopped and de­tained her. Her fiancée wired $3,000 to bail her out and she was re­leased pending an im­mig­ra­tion hear­ing sched­uled two years later.

Spartan­burg seemed like a big city to Brenda when she got off the bus from Texas. She didn’t speak Eng­lish and re­lied on the help of oth­er im­mig­rants in the same situ­ation. With­in a few weeks, she got a job work­ing the drive-thru win­dow at a na­tion­al fast-food chain. No one asked for her So­cial Se­cur­ity card.

Brenda worked at the drive-thru win­dow for about 12 years, mak­ing min­im­um wage and put­ting up with ab­us­ive be­ha­vi­or. Angry cus­tom­ers of­ten yelled and told her to go back to Mex­ico. She stopped count­ing the times people threw food and drinks at her if an or­der was messed up.

“It’s the ugli­est feel­ing to hear someone say you don’t be­long here and to get out,” she says, wip­ing away tears. “It kills your self-es­teem.”

Her friend Lili­ana, who worked with her at the fast-food chain, re­calls the time a cus­tom­er stormed through the door and spit in her face. Neither of them dared to com­plain, too afraid of los­ing their jobs.

“We just stay quiet,” says Lili­ana, who’s from Guatem­ala and who asked that her last name be with­held. “It’s hor­ribly re­press­ive. On one hand, it’s good be­cause you have a job, but on the oth­er hand, you can’t ex­press what you feel be­cause you’re afraid.”

After work­ing for two years in the U.S., Brenda was preg­nant and her im­mig­ra­tion-court date in At­lanta was com­ing up. At that point, she knew she didn’t want her son to have the same life she had in Hon­dur­as. So Brenda ig­nored the judge’s or­ders to leave the coun­try.

In­stead, she got mar­ried, gave birth to her first son, and bought a three-bed­room house in north­ern Spartan­burg. She gave birth to her second son two years later.

Then came the mo­ment she had been dread­ing for more than a dec­ade. It happened be­fore dawn on April 2, 2013 — the height of the state’s push against il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion. Brenda was driv­ing to her job at the fast-food res­taur­ant when she saw the blue lights of a po­lice car in the rear-view mir­ror.

“I felt the world come crash­ing down,” she says.

The po­lice of­ficer said she was speed­ing and asked for her driver’s li­cense. Brenda doesn’t have one, so she gave him her Hon­dur­an pass­port. The of­ficer re­turned to his patrol car, then came back a few minutes later and said he found a de­port­a­tion or­der on her re­cord. She went to jail.

After three days in jail, an im­mig­ra­tion judge re­leased her from cus­tody to care for her two sons, and sched­uled an­oth­er hear­ing sev­en months later near Spartan­burg. At the Novem­ber hear­ing, an im­mig­ra­tion judge gave her a 12-month work per­mit so she can earn money to buy a plane tick­et to re­turn to Hon­dur­as.

Now Brenda works at the pack­aging plant, mak­ing $8.50 an hour — $1.25 more than she made at the fast-food res­taur­ant. She hopes im­mig­ra­tion re­form will hap­pen be­fore her Novem­ber dead­line to leave the coun­try. Un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants aren’t ask­ing for Amer­ic­an cit­izen­ship, she says — all they want is some form of leg­al status so they can live without fear.

“I’m ask­ing God for re­form,” says Brenda. “I don’t want to go. A re­form, or a mir­acle, I don’t know.”

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