Griselda Lopez Negrete was a normal 15-year-old growing up in Aiken, until a trip with her aunt nearly changed her life.
A question from a stranger forced the Silver Bluff High School student to confront – for the first time – that she had been living in the United States without proper documentation. Griselda would spend the next four years fighting to avoid being sent back to Mexico, the country she doesn’t remember living in.
Earlier this month, the federal government shut down in part because of a fight over the legal status of young people in Griselda’s situation. Now, those young people are protected by the soon-to-expire Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – or DACA – program. That program shields from being deported young people who were brought into the United States illegally as children, many so young that they never have known another country.
But Griselda’s story played out more than 10 years ago, when so-called “dreamers” first were entering the conversation about immigration in the United States.
Ten years later, Negrete Mendez, as Griselda now is known since her marriage, is a legal U.S. resident on the verge of giving birth to her second American child, still living and working in the only community she ever has called home.
All it took was the support of her friends and neighbors, some good legal work, an act of kindness from her U.S. citizen-uncle and an intervention from U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham.
And some good timing.
‘What am I going to say?’
In 2004, Griselda’s aunt Rosa Negrete had a routine appointment at the immigration office in Charleston. To make the meeting easier, she asked her fluent English-speaking niece to come with her as a translator.
“They had background on her, obviously, but they started asking questions about me,” Negrete Mendez said. “And what am I going to say? I just told them I don’t have any legal status at that point.”
That admission got the then-teenaged Griselda detained for more questioning, then sent home with notification she would have to appear soon in immigration court.
“It’s not like I was in handcuffs or anything,” she said. “They just put me off in a little room. I was able to come right back (to Aiken), but (I had) it in mind that things were going to get very different.”
It was a shock to the young honors student, who never really had considered her legal status before. She had grown up in Aiken with her father, her late mother, siblings and extended family. She was successful and popular in school. She never had been asked her citizenship status before – she had not even applied for a learner’s permit to drive a car.
“The only thing that I knew was that I had family that would go back and forth (to Mexico) every year to visit, and I couldn’t do that,” she said. “But to try to figure that out at 13 or 14 years old, I couldn’t quite understand exactly why.
“I just kind of accepted it.”
‘You wouldn’t know’
Negrete Mendez was born in a small village in the Mexican state of Michoacán. Not that she remembers it.
Her mother, Rosa Lopez, brought her to Aiken in 1990 when she was just 2 years old.
“She physically brought me across the border, carrying me and two of my sisters,” Negrete Mendez remembers, sitting in the kitchen of her rural Aiken County home. “My biological dad was already here on a visa, and she just decided, ‘I’m going to go find him.’ ”
Aiken had attracted members of the Negrete family – along with other Mexican workers – for years.
Griselda’s grandfather came to work on an Aiken horse farm in the early 1980s. He made the Midlands sound so great to family members in Michoacán that Negrete Mendez’s father Javier and uncle Pedro soon followed, working as grooms in local stables by the time Javier’s young family followed.
The now 29-year-old Negrete Mendez still lives in horse country with her husband Joaquin Mendez and 2-year-old daughter Isabel. She has worked in the human resources department at Aiken Regional Medical Center since she graduated from USC Aiken with a business degree in 2010.
“If you meet her here, until she tells you her story, you wouldn’t know it,” said Carissa Smith, Negrete Mendez’s childhood friend.
“She’s just like an everyday citizen.”
A ‘private’ bill in the U.S. Congress
In 2004, however, Griselda and her family began waking up at the crack of dawn so they could be in Atlanta in time for a regular 9 a.m. court appearance every couple of months. Often taking up the entire day, the court appearances mainly were to check in with officials as the teenager’s case moved through the legal system.
“Every time I went, I was nervous because I knew this could be the day they said, ‘Nope, you gotta go,’ ” Negrete Mendez said. “There were several people there they would tell, ‘This is it. We’ll give you so many days to get your stuff together, and then you have to leave.’ ”
The regular visits were a disruption to her schooling as well as her relatives’ work schedules, but Griselda kept up her studies.
Smith, her high school classmate, remembers the two of them going to a student entrepreneurship conference in Texas.
“I’m sure it was on her mind, but I think it motivated her to prove her point of why she needed to be here,” Smith said. “You could stick a label on her, but she would say, ‘That’s not who I am. I’m here to work. I’m here to contribute.’ ”
The group Catholic Charities connected Griselda with Columbia immigration attorney Glenda Bunce. Bunce now admits she thought, “Griselda really didn’t have a case.”
But the teen’s story garnered media attention, and a national immigration group brought her to Washington, D.C., to lobby for the original DREAM Act.
There, Griselda met U.S. Sen. Graham, R-Seneca.
Graham was so touched by her story that he introduced an unusual private bill saying the teen – and Griselda alone – was to be “considered to have been lawfully admitted to the United States for permanent residence.”
The measure passed the Senate but, ultimately, stalled in the U.S. House.
Nevertheless, the motion put a halt to the deportation proceeding against Griselda.
“It was really, really difficult to get that passed,” Bunce said. “But it threw a monkey wrench into the case.”
And the Negretes soon stopped making those early morning drives to Atlanta.
But Griselda’s family still knew they needed a permanent solution.
“That was when my aunt and uncle stepped in and said, ‘You know, we need to have a backup plan,’ ” she recalled.
Pedro Negrete, Rosa’s husband, long ago had secured his U.S. citizenship. He realized he could protect his niece by legally adopting her before she turned 16 – though he gives credit for the idea to a family friend from the stables.
“He actually wanted to adopt her, but she would not qualify” in time because the adoption process would take too long with a stranger, said Pedro Negrete, now a landscaper in Aiken. “It would have to be a close relative.”
Griselda lived nearby and regularly saw her three cousins, so Pedro Negrete knew her life wouldn’t be changed by the adoption – unlike if she was sent back to Mexico.
“You go off to a place you don’t know,” he said. “It’s like if I go to Russia to visit or you go to Iraq. Even if you can get a good job, you don’t want to go.”
You go off to a place you don’t know. It’s like if I go to Russia to visit or you go to Iraq. Even if you can get a good job, you don’t want to go.
— Pedro Negrete, Griselda’s uncle and adopted father
Pedro Negrete also remembered how hard it was for him to come to the United States three decades earlier.
“It took me three years to get over being homesick,” he said. “You just have to be tough for a while.
“You have to start your life over again.”
‘I got it’
After four years struggling with immigration authorities, Griselda traveled back to Mexico in 2008 for the first time as an adult to apply for a permanent green card at the massive U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez, the entry point for most Mexicans trying to get into the United States legally.
She came armed with a thorough waiver application prepared by Bunce, and ready to spend months there with her uncle-legal father as they awaited a final decision.
By then in college, “I had to sit down with my professors and kind of explain what was going on, and let them know, ‘I’m not 100 percent sure when I’m going to be back,’ ” she recalled.
But on her third day in the city, Griselda had a brief interview with an immigration official about her situation and, unexpectedly, was cleared for re-entry to the United States.
“She went ahead and told me, ‘OK, you’re fine,’ ” Negrete Mendez said. “I was still thinking, ‘I have to come back tomorrow. I have to present my waiver,’ and she was like, ‘No, it’s fine. You can go ahead to the next line, and they’ll go ahead and give you your visa, and you’ll be able to get back.’ ”
Even Uncle Pedro was confused when she came out of the meeting waving her new visa, shouting “I got it!”
“It was like total stress completely off my shoulders,” she said. “It was the best feeling.”
Now an adult, Negrete Mendez is appreciative of the life she leads in the United States.
In Mexico, she doesn’t think she could have gone to college, bought a house or her own car, especially without the support of her family.
“Just having to go through the whole thing, kind of in the public eye, made it stressful and difficult, especially at such a young age,” she said. “But looking back on it, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m glad it went the way that it did.
“It definitely has made me a much more appreciative person, especially to be able to still be here in this country.”
In Aiken, Negrete Mendez has remained a visible member of a population that often remains invisible.
“Whenever she’s called upon to give insight into what she went through, she will,” former classmate Smith said. “It’s near and dear to her heart.”
Negrete Mendez has family and friends who are among the 800,000 DACA recipients whose legal status to remain in the United States could be revoked if the program ends in March, as President Trump has said he plans.
They are “hanging by a thread,” waiting to see what happens.
“I’m not here to take anything away from anyone, and I don’t think any of these kids on the DACA program are here to take anything away from anyone,” she said. “We’re here to create our own opportunities. We’re here to help the country. This is a group of kids who want to do well.”
I’m not here to take anything away from anyone, and I don’t think any of these kids on the DACA program are here to take anything away from anyone. We’re here to create our own opportunities. We’re here to help the country. This is a group of kids who want to do well.
— Griselda Lopez Negrete Mendez
Looking at her life now, she’s especially thankful when she thinks about her daughter and other child on the way.
“They have so many more opportunities than even I had,” she said. “There will be a lot of things they don’t have to struggle through that my husband and I struggled through. When we got here, we couldn’t even speak English. ...
“But I will share my struggles with them because I want them to be appreciative of what this country has to offer them.”
DACA and SC
The Deferred Action for Children Arrivals program allows immigrants to live, work and study in the United States if they entered the country illegally as children, have remained in the country and don’t have a criminal record.
U.S. residents who have DACA status nationwide
Number who live in South Carolina
June 15, 2012: Then-President Barack Obama announces the DACA program
Sept. 5, 2017: Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who reports to new President Donald Trump, says DACA will be rescinded within six months, barring action by Congress
Jan. 20-22: The federal government briefly shuts down as a bill to pay for government operations is held up by Democrats who want a permanent DACA fix. Eventually, they vote with Republicans to reopen the government for three weeks as negotiations continue.
March 5: When the DACA program will end without a congressional fix