AIKEN --- After a few years of residency battles that attracted some national attention, 19-year-old Griselda Lopez Negrete recently received the news she had waited so long to hear.
At the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in January, Ms. Lopez had to wait just one more minute and answer just four questions before being told she could return to her home in Aiken County and stay.
"I was kind of in shock. I asked three times if they were sure," she said. "It's weird that little piece of paper was all I needed. It's such a huge burden lifted."
Brought here illegally by her late mother, Rosa Lopez, as a toddler to meet her father, Javier, Ms. Negrete didn't know she was breaking the law until she was 15 years old.
While she was translating for an aunt seeking residency, immigration officials in Charleston, S.C., questioned Ms. Lopez's own residency status. The questioning caught her off guard, and she didn't know what was going on then, she said.
Since then, she has pushed through legal battles in between homework assignments and college applications. She didn't fill in the residency status of those college applications because she said she wasn't sure what to put down.
Her uncle and aunt, Pedro and Rosa Negrete, adopted her as a teenager, and she moved into their Aiken County home.
Ms. Negrete's story has become familiar throughout the area and has attracted national attention. A Google search of her name pulls up more than 200 articles and documents. They include strangers fighting on her behalf and neighbors complaining about her breaking immigration laws. U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., introduced a private bill on her behalf in 2004 that would have allowed her legalization.
The moment she arrived in Ciudad Juarez, Ms. Negrete said, she knew Mexico wasn't where she wanted to be. The scene was like something she saw on TV, with armed police lining the streets and violence every day.
The first few days were spent waiting in lines from 6 a.m. to well into the afternoon to pass physicals and continue paperwork.
She had left Aiken knowing she could be detained in Mexico -- punished for as many as three years for illegal immigration.
Walking into the initial interview, the first step in her appeal for legalization, she was asked to give her age, her name, where she was from and why she wanted to stay in Aiken. Then she was told she could stay in the United States.
Over the past four years, Ms. Negrete has worked with Columbia attorney Glenda Bunce, who specializes in immigration cases. Now pursuing a business management degree at the University of South Carolina Aiken, Ms. Negrete said she hopes her work will allow her to help others in similar situations.
"No matter how hard I try, I can't hide it; I didn't know what I was doing when I got here," she said. "There's a lot of bad people who come in to traffic drugs, and I know that amnesty is not a good solution to the problem. But there are also tons of teenagers like me who just want to work."
Reach Julia Sellers at (803) 648-1395, ext. 106, or firstname.lastname@example.org
BACKGROUND: Griselda Lopez Negrete, 19, was originally born in Mexico. She moved to the United States at age 2 with her mother and father. She found out she was an illegal immigrant at age 15 when she was translating for an aunt who was applying for legal residency.
- Now a University of South Carolina Aiken sophomore studying business management
- Fought deportation for the past four years
- Given the OK to stay in Aiken last month
WHAT SHE'S GOING TO DO: The first thing she will do when she gets her final paperwork is apply for a driver's license, something she's wanted to do since she was 16.