When Carmen Rodriguez was 16, she was a high-achieving high school student in Mexico’s Oaxaca state. Her father, who owned a small construction company, provided for her and her siblings. She didn’t need to leave.
But Rodriguez, hard-headed and stubborn, began clashing with her father. So one day, in what she now calls a fit of teenage recklessness, she decided to leave for the U.S.
“I thought it was a game, and that game turned into this whole drama that I’m still living today,” she says.
Rodriguez arrived in Sanford, and enrolled in high school. She was a good student initially, she says, but even though she was living with relatives, she needed to earn a living, so she dropped out to work full time at a perfume packaging plant.
She still thought her teenage adventure was temporary, but that changed when she got pregnant. She realized: She wanted her children to grow up in the U.S. Later, she landed a better paying job in construction. At her first work site, a hotel in Cary, she was of three women working with a crew of 300 men, she says.
“It was tough work, and it was tough working with so many men,” she says. “I remember the first construction site was a hotel in Cary, and there were 300 workers, and only three women.”
Rodriguez was one of six demonstrators who were arrested outside of the North Carolina governor’s mansion in October. She was after blocking traffic for three hours and protested a new law the governor signed addressing illegal immigration. She’s the only one of the demonstrators living in the country without papers, and protested despite risking deportation.
Rodriguez, now 30, has three children who are all natural-born American citizens. But her crime of crossing the border illegally has come at a high price: she can’t buy a car, she can’t obtain insurance, and she can’t rent a home. She felt humiliated this year when lawmakers gave speeches vilifying people like her, she says, even though undocumented immigrants pay taxes that fund Social Security and Medicaid benefits from which they don’t benefit.
“It’s unfair that they don’t recognize our contributions,” Rodriguez said.
State lawmakers passed a bill restricting the use of identification that undocumented immigrants often carry. Rodriguez and others held daily protests for a month outside the executive mansion while Gov. Pat McCrory considered the bill. After he signed it, Rodriguez and five others walked into the street in front of the mansion, shackled themselves and blocked traffic for three hours. She could’ve gotten deported, and she knew it.
But law enforcement practices appear to have changed little since Gov. McCrory signed HB318 into law. Law enforcement officers across North Carolina have long cross referenced the name of anyone they arrest through the federal Priority Enforcement Program so that they will hold them if represent a threat to public safety, says Kate Woomer-Deters of the North Carolina Justice Center.
Authorities prioritize people who have committed higher level criminal offenses, Woomer-Deters said.
When Raleigh police officers arrested Rodriguez, they acted the same way they would have before the new law was signed. They asked for her ID, she handed them a registration card from the Mexican consulate, and they took it. Woomer-Deters has been talking to police across the state about this procedure. The new law doesn't stop law enforcement from looking at foreign I-Ds.
“They believe it is within their discretion to look at a foreign ID or a consular ID as one piece of the puzzle in determining who a person is,” Woomer-Deters said.
After Raleigh police officers arrested Rodriguez, they took her to the Wake County Detention Center, where a federal immigration official interviewed her.
“He says, ‘Don’t worry. If you don’t have any serious crimes or any felonies on your record, you’ll get out of here today,’ ” she remembers. “And that was it.”
Rodriguez says she was terrified of what could’ve happened to her. But that she doesn’t want live in constant fear any more and she doesn’t want other people like her to live in fear either. She wants to legally buy a car and legally drive to work. She says she’s inspired by her 12-year-old daughter, who is already involved in leadership programs at school and wants to organize protests.
“All of this is motivating here, so she’s like my hope,” Rodriguez said. Everything that I can’t do because I don’t have a piece of paper, she’ll be able to do.
Rodriguez and the other five demonstrators—all of them U-S citizens—are due in Wake County Court today. She’s been doing community service, and she hopes that after the hearing, she’ll be able to leave and go back to work.