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.