As a Mexican immigrant, Adela Mendoza knows the importance of a welcoming community. After arriving in the United States at age 24 to study English at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, she married an American and set out to make a place for herself in her new home. When her husband, a scientist, accepted a job in Lynchburg, Virginia, Mendoza tried to get involved at several churches, but members declined her repeated offers to volunteer. There were other incidents that made her feel like an outsider, like the grocery store manager who refused to accept her Mexican passport as valid identification to purchase wine, and the judge who sided against her over a car accident that she said was clearly not her fault. “It was a closed society that wasn’t used to living with Latinos. People pretended not to understand my English,” says Mendoza, now 40. As a result, she felt isolated and increasingly less motivated to try to overcome social barriers.
We need to create the space for a national conversation to recognize what immigrants contribute to America and help them succeed.
Mendoza hopes that immigration reform will change negative perceptions about newcomers to this country. “We need to create the space for a national conversation to recognize what immigrants contribute to America and help them succeed,” she says. Mendoza herself exemplifies how social acceptance can help immigrants thrive. About a decade ago, she and her husband left Lynchburg for Greenville, South Carolina, home to one of the fastest-growing Hispanic populations in the country.
In 2007, Mendoza started working with the Hispanic Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to connecting Hispanics with essential social services and educational opportunities. The group became especially active in 2008 when it rallied the community following the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s raid of a chicken processing plant and arrest of 300 workers. “Kids came home from school, and their parents weren’t there,” says Mendoza, who sprang into action organizing food pantries and fundraisers over the next year to help the families left behind. Many husbands had been deported, leaving hundreds of women and children without a source of income. “We’re a very efficient network with very few financial resources, but we are delivering a big impact,” says Mendoza of the Hispanic Alliance’s $270,000 annual budget—60 percent of which comes from United Way.
In 2012, Mendoza became the Hispanic Alliance’s executive director. Today, her main mission is helping immigrants assimilate into the Greenville community and creating opportunities for them to contribute to their new home. “The Hispanic population is transforming so quickly, and you see their presence everywhere,” she says, explaining that institutions must accommodate them. For example, her organization provides interpreters to help new arrivals visit the area’s free medical clinic. Mendoza is especially proud of the Alliance’s partnership with Greenville Technical College to increase the Hispanic presence from more than 760 students in 2011 to more than 3,500 students in 2016. Improved access to education for immigrants is especially critical in South Carolina, which passed a law in 2008 to prevent undocumented workers from accessing public benefits, such as in-state tuition or financial aid. Mendoza says she is moved by stories of Hispanic students working the night shift and taking one or two classes at a time. “That tells you so much about the work ethic they bring to the country,” she says.
Mendoza believes that increasing immigrants’ opportunities for education will have a positive economic impact on her state. This is especially important in upstate South Carolina, which has many major multi-national companies, such as BMW, General Electric, and Michelin, all of which need a skilled workforce. “This national conversation shouldn’t be about immigrants,” she says. “It should be about how to recognize the value of this available workforce that’s willing to be trained. That’s how we can make America great.” Like Mendoza did as an ambitious young woman, they just need the chance to contribute.