Andrew Dys

York County immigrants: ‘We just want our kids to have a better life.’

The name on his sweat-soaked work shirt says “Uribe.” The full name is Uribe Diaz, 33, and he is asked as he toils in the hot sun from physical labor where he comes from.

“Rock Hill,” Diaz said. “South Carolina.”

His five children were born here and attend school here. The older ones speak English and Spanish and are learning Chinese and French in school.

But Diaz was born in Mexico. He came here many years ago and has done nothing but work and go to church and make sure his kids learn.

Because he is Mexican, he lives life as a suspect.

Under South Carolina’s 2011 immigration law – struck down by a federal appeals court Tuesday as too harsh in attempting to make immigrants have to show documentation all the time – Diaz is less than a hard-working man in America.

He is one of “them.”

The appeals court ruling upholds a previous federal court ruling that says South Carolina’s law that would have made anybody who is undocumented in a house or on a job site a felon. That person’s mere presence in the state of South Carolina would be a felony, according to the appeals court ruling that shot down South Carolina’s law as illegal.

The failure to carry a card stating immigration status would have been a misdemeanor.

Diaz is a trusted, loyal foreman for TK Cleaning & Lawn Service, owned by Troy Kelley. Kelley employs many immigrants, including Juan Quesada, a Mexican who has been in America for 28 years.

Quesada, 48, speaks English well. His body and hands show a lifetime of work.

He is puzzled by a question about whether he loves America after almost three decades here.

“Of course,” he said. “I live here.”

Kelley, the business owner, returns that loyalty to his workers.

“These immigration laws that target immigrants, it makes you wonder why people who don’t like immigrants are irate,” Kelley said. “Nobody targeted the immigrants from Europe or anywhere else before now. It’s the Hispanics, the Mexicans.

“These stupid laws are no different than laws that targeted blacks or anybody else years ago, and we have to stop trying to make them less than human.”

The state law, now dead although the state can appeal, would have made any movement or harboring of illegals, even suspected illegals, a felony. They guy who drives a truck filled with workers would have been hauled off to jail.

The teacher who taught them English might have been arrested, too.

Immigrants, Kelley said, are a “vital part of the economy.”

“They ask for a chance to work and raise families,” he said. “We should be thankful that these people are here.”

Yet the Legislature passed a law, now shown to be illegal, that would make almost any contact with someone potentially in the country illegally – known only by brown skin, apparently, and maybe a Hispanic accent – a crime.

So many of these people live and work among us – in landscaping and construction, food service and hospitality, and the growing and cultivating of America’s food.

They work tough, physical jobs at blue-collar pay, often without benefits. Many employers will tell you there are no American-born workers jockeying for these jobs.

The immigrants that Kelley has come into contact with over the years spend “thousands of dollars” on lawyers, fees, paperwork and more to try to make America their permanent home. The workers are taxed.

“They love this country,” Kelley said.

Off Blackburn Street in York, there is a new sign called “Pinata Street.” It is that way because the people who live there in the row of weathered buildings are all Hispanic. Same for the houses all around it.

These are old mill hill homes, first occupied by white mill hands, then black mill hands. The mills closed, turning to cheaper labor in countries such as Brazil and Mexico and India.

But Hispanic workers, mainly from Mexico but surely from many Latin American countries, come here for more. For better work, better pay, a chance at life.

In the evenings, the air is filled with the sounds of laughter, fathers and sons playing with a ball, the smells of cooking. The nearby park is never empty when the sun shines.

In one of those old houses Wednesday was a mother from Mexico who has been in this country about 30 years, and her two sons – born right here. The youngest, Cesar Mendoza, said he is “6 years old, going in the first grade.”

He speaks English, and translates for his mother. He was born right here. He is an American, he says.

The older son, Hector Mendoza, 9, proudly names his school.

“Harold C. Johnson Elementary School, York,” Hector said. “Fourth grade.”

The mother spoke Spanish, but the importance of her children going to school in America was clear. She is asked about the father, the husband.

“Construction,” she said. He was at work.

On any construction site in York County there are immigrants hammering and sawing and pouring concrete in the 90-degree heat. That law struck down would have made many of them want to hide after such honest labor.

The law would have meant, according to the judge’s opinion handed down Tuesday, that “taking a bus or driving home at the end of the workday would be ‘transporting’ oneself to the shelter of one’s home to avoid detection.”

From one of those houses in York at lunchtime Wednesday spilled out two women and a man. They had worked a hard half-day already at Stacy’s Greenhouses north of York. A pair of small boys, born here of Mexican parents, played in the yard.

“I ask for nothing,” Luis Gobea said. “We just want our kids to have a better life.”

Gobea, here from Mexico for 13 years, talked about how he and his wife pay taxes on income, how they pay for their home, and they pay for vehicles and insurance and all the rest.

Besides Gobea and his wife working in the brutally hard job of raising plants and trees, his mother who lives with him works there, too. She is 48, and her eyes shone Wednesday with the gleam of an honest day’s work at a wage that helps pay the bills.

Gobea expects his children, born right here, to succeed in school and get jobs that are not in fields or on lawns.

“College,” Gobea said. “That’s what a father wants for his kids, why I work.”

In the side yard was a covered lawnmower.

“My second job,” he said. “I have to go back to my first job now.”