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.”