- Illustration by Shan Stumpf
Maria is emphatic that North Carolina is her home. The native of Guanajuato, Mexico, who asked that her last name not be used, has been in the state for twenty years, longer than anywhere else she's ever lived. She's fifty-three years old, with straight dark hair and an easy laugh; she considers herself settled here. Both of her children study at universities in the state, and she's made plenty of friends. While she's currently looking for work—the family makes do on her husband's job at a construction company—she volunteers with the North Carolina-based group El Pueblo as a health educator. She explains that last point enthusiastically: she's a bashful English speaker, but chatty in Spanish. On serious topics, her voice drops to a whisper.
"I love North Carolina," she says. "I've had the opportunity to go to other states, and I don't feel comfortable."
The only thing stopping Maria from feeling like a full-fledged Tar Heel is that she's undocumented. And she's bracing herself for the bitter fight to come over whether, in the era of Donald Trump, she'll ever really be able to call North Carolina home.
Maria's predicament is not unique. She's one of an estimated 350,000 undocumented immigrants living in North Carolina, part of the state's rapidly growing Latino population (the eleventh largest in the nation). Roughly 890,000 Latinos live in the Tar Heel state, according to the Pew Research Center, comprising 9 percent of the state's population. Like so many of the state's undocumented immigrants, Maria is sorting through her options, given that the incoming administration and the state legislature are both openly hostile to her continued presence here.
Her concerns run the gamut: President-elect Donald Trump's pledge to deport eleven million undocumented immigrants (he has since backed away from that proposal, vowing instead to deport immigrants with criminal records); the looming threat of immigration raids; and the manifestations of Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric in everyday life in North Carolina.
"The community is going through a very difficult time," she says. "And this has so many impacts. Not just socially, but economically. We feel fear. Anguish. Stress. My kids worry about me. In any moment, they can separate us. And now, this stress has grown. I don't want to go to the store, out the door. I feel like I'm in a corner, and Trump is looking for me, always."
But where Maria sees uncertainty, immigration advocates see a poweful political opportunity. Organizations like El Pueblo are encouraging immigrants and activists to fight for expanded rights in the halls of the General Assembly. Last weekend, in conjunction with the Global Day of Action to Protect Immigrants and Refugees, El Pueblo held a Know Your Rights Workshop for community members, immigrants, and allies, where speakers from El Pueblo, the ACLU, and the Mexican Consul of Raleigh outlined various state legislators' positions on immigration and provided legal context on immigrant rights.
"The goal of the workshop was, first and foremost, know your rights in the worst-case scenario like an immigrant raid," says El Pueblo spokesman William Saenz. "But also fight to expand those rights. The General Assembly is going to be getting back to work soon with legislation and whatnot, so we'll be preparing lobby days and having volunteers go to speak with representatives. The idea is, this is the information, and here is what you can do to act upon that."
They'll have much to discuss. As Saenz points out, "We have seen a very anti-immigrant General Assembly."
Indeed, in 2015 former governor Pat McCrory signed into law a bill prohibiting municipalities from becoming sanctuary cities, barring government agencies and law enforcement officials from accepting ID cards issued by foreign governments, and expanding employers' use of the E-verify program. Opponents argued that the bill would have a chilling effect on immigrant communities and dissuade immigrants from reporting crimes to law enforcement for fear of deportation.
Elements of the legislature's antipathy toward immigrants can be traced, in no small part, to massive demographic changes. Between 1990 and 2013, the immigrant population in North Carolina swelled by 551 percent, rounding out at an estimated 750,000.
These newcomers have had profound affects on the state economy. A 2014 study by researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill found that immigrants contributed upward of $19 billion to the state's economy in 2010, thus "underscoring the need for an open-door immigration policy." On the other hand, a mass deportation, along the lines originally proposed by Trump, could cost the federal government nearly $900 billion over the next decade, according to the left-leaning Center for American Progress. In North Carolina alone, CAP says, such a policy could amount to an annual GDP hit in excess of $10 billion.
Still, proponents of these measures argue that undocumented immigrants hurt the state's workers. As state representative George Cleveland, R-Onslow, who sponsored the sanctuary cities bill, said at its introduction in 2015: "We've allowed a huge illegal population in the state. We've taken away employment from our citizens. We've lowered the wage base because of the illegals working. Illegal aliens cost the state of North Carolina some $1.7 billion net, after all consideration of what they produce in taxes and whatnot toward government support."
Attitudes like this have led to a palpable sense in local immigrant communities that, documented or otherwise, they're under attack. That's why nearly three dozen people packed into El Pueblo's Saturday-morning workshop, eager to hit the halls of the General Assembly. A young woman burst into tears when she recalled immigration agents stalking her home to nab her undocumented stepfather. She is now anxious at the sight of police cars, she explained, and wants to move.
"They don't even treat us like humans," someone in the audience muttered.
Given the conservative bent of the legislature—and the fact that Republicans have enough votes in each chamber to override a veto from Governor Cooper—it's unlikely this environment will change any time soon. Despite the odds, Saenz says, activists will push lawmakers to permit undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers' licenses and access in-state tuition. (Currently, undocumented immigrants—even those who came to the United States as children and as such are spared from deportation under President Obama's deferred-action program—have to pay out-of-state tuition, which is considerably more expensive.)
Maria says lawmakers' perceived animus won't stop her from making her second trip to the legislature. She's determined, she says, to speak with her representatives—and she hopes they'll listen.
"At first it made me scared to have a legislator so close to me, but not all of them are so closed off," she says. "Some of them even have a little bit of tolerance, and they'll let you talk."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Fight for Your Right (to Live Here)."