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Putting It All On the Line

By Liz Rothaus Bertrand

The Sanchez Family

Huntersville resident Doris Meeks remembers the scene like it was yesterday. The doorbell rang and standing before her was Gabriel Sanchez, the conscientious young man who took care of all her yard work. With big tears rolling down his cheeks, he told her: “They’re sending me back to Mexico.”

Until that moment in early March 2020, Meeks had no idea that Sanchez was undocumented. But seeing his distress and knowing him from the years of quality work he had provided to her family, she was concerned.

“That’s when I made up my mind I had to do something,” she said. “That was just too sad for me. Especially living in America. This was the country of unlimited opportunities.”

A National Issue, a Local Perspective

Sometimes the national dialog on immigration can seem distant: a series of statistics and ongoing debates in Washington. But the policies, challenges and opportunities of the immigration system affect every community.

Here in Mecklenburg County, about 16% of the population is foreign born, according to the latest U.S. Census estimate (2021 American Community Survey).

Here’s the story of how one local couple lent a hand to help another family achieve the American dream.

Doris Meeks and her husband, Rick, had been impressed by Sanchez and his work ethic since he first approached them in 2016 with a business proposal to care for their lawn year round.

They knew him as a hard worker, who ran his company with integrity, honesty and reliability.

Like many immigrants, Sanchez came to America seeking economic opportunity. “I [came] into this country for a better future for my family,” he said, “for mama, for my brothers.”

As a teenager in Mexico, Sanchez had sold fruit at a market after school to help support his family but it wasn’t enough to make ends meet. At age 16, he followed in his older brother's footsteps, running across the border in search of work.

Crossing the border was frightening and arduous. He walked three days and four nights with little to eat and only dirty water available to drink.

At first, Sanchez joined his brother in Chicago and worked two job shifts, packing frozen pizzas. Eventually he moved to North Carolina, where a cousin lived.

Sanchez built his life here, married an American woman, started a family and his own business. He also tried to regulate his immigration status.

The Complexities of the Immigration System

Applying for a green card takes time and involves a series of steps. Sanchez hired an attorney to help him through the process, which included multiple rounds of paperwork and various background checks, followed each time by months of waiting for official correspondence.

For Sanchez, the process stretched over several years.

It was also costly. In pursuit of a green card, Sanchez spent $5,000 on attorney fees and $3,000 on the paperwork and application fees. Together, these came to more than a quarter of his annual income at the time.

As he waited, he worried and often had trouble sleeping. What if the immigration officers didn’t believe the information he shared and reasons for wanting to stay in America? What if someone came to his house and took him away from his children?

Finally, in early March 2020, he had an appointment date set for the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.

That’s when he learned having a joint sponsor—someone with additional financial resources to back his application—could help expedite the process. When the Meeks offered their support, Sanchez was relieved and gratified. He knew he could trust them and that the feeling was mutual.

That sense of trust was important since joint sponsorship requires taking on potential risk and sharing a tremendous amount of personal and financial information. Shortly before Sanchez was due in Mexico, the Meeks invited him and his wife to their home. Together, they assembled copies of the extensive documentation required to process his application.

“Gabriel left with a huge trough of paperwork,” Doris Meeks said. “I mean everything about us… from birth certificates to marriage certificates to divorce certificates to ownership of our home, everything was going to Mexico.”

This exposure made them somewhat uneasy—who knew what would happen to their personal information once it was out of their hands and in another country? The Meeks also understood if Sanchez were successful in his bid, serving as a joint sponsor meant assuming liability for any issues that could arise after acquiring a green card.

“If he were to get into trouble with the law or didn’t pay his bills, they would come to us,” Doris Meeks said. “So being a sponsor is a responsibility.”

Why Take a Risk for Someone They Barely Knew?

For Rick Meeks, the answer was easy. “It just seemed like the right thing to do,” he said. “There was no reason to send him back and break his family up. He was contributing to our country’s well-being as much as anybody else.”

The couple had another motivation, too. Doris Meeks is an immigrant herself.

She came to the U.S. from Cologne, Germany in the 1960s and she’s never forgotten how that opportunity changed her life.

At various times, she has worked with or volunteered in support of immigrant populations. For the last 15 years, she has also been active in Doorways International Women's Group, a social club with speakers and monthly events for women who come from countries around the world. The group is affiliated with International House, a nonprofit organization that offers resources to people who are foreign born, those with foreign roots or who are foreign minded in the Charlotte area.

“If [Doris] had not been a member of International House, we might not have even explored doing what we did,” Rick Meeks said. “I think that gave her some insight.”

A Broken System

The Meeks also knew from these experiences that the immigration system doesn’t treat everyone equally.

“[Y]ou can come over here and have a baby, that baby will be American and they can bring in whoever,” Doris Meeks said. “And it also is tied to money…if you have a half million dollars, believe me you can come to this country and get to stay. So knowing those particulars, I really wanted to help Gabriel.”

In her own case, she said she came over “the easy way,” through her first marriage to an American serviceman. She already spoke fluent English at the time and had financial means. The process had simply required a routine appointment at the American consulate in Frankfurt.

“And I was, on top of that, very lucky,” she said. “Not everybody is lucky.”

“The bottom line is this country needs an immigrant system revision that makes sense,” Rick Meeks added. “We don’t have one. And they all talk about ‘we need to do something’ but the Congress never does anything.”

To Mexico and Beyond

When Sanchez left for Mexico City, he feared he might not ever see his family again and lose everything he had worked for. His children begged to go with him. His 7-year old asked if she could climb into his suitcase.

During the two weeks he was away from them, Sanchez said it felt like he had died.

But after years of waiting and worrying, his time at the embassy went smoothly. Within a couple of days, he had his green card.

Someday, it could offer a path to citizenship too.

Within a year of obtaining his green card, Sanchez bought a home in Statesville. He and his wife recently welcomed a fourth child and his business, New Life Landscape, LLC continues to grow and serve the community.

Doris Meeks said all of this is “like the icing on the cake. That we were able to help one young man to establish his family here, to me, was fantastic.”

Friendships between people like the Meeks and Sanchez are part of the equation for improving opportunities for everyone in our community. Many studies have shown the importance of social capital (i.e., networks and connections that provide access to resources, information, and opportunity) as an essential factor in economic mobility.

In August 2022, two new papers published in “Nature” by Opportunity Insights, a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization based at Harvard University, went further: they specified that friendships between people across class lines (known as economic connectedness) are the single most important aspect in determining intergenerational income mobility.

That’s something to keep in mind as we look toward building stronger communities: how the systems we create—including schools, neighborhoods, transportation and civic organizations—can keep us in silos or connect us with others.

Gabriel Sanchez and his beautiful family

If you'd like to learn more about International House, please click here.

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