Ricsy Sanchez lives in Thomasville. But she wasn’t born there. She’s originally from Honduras. She came to the United States, without documentation, at the age of 11. Her mother and father had been working in North Carolina since Ricsy was 3. She remembers being thrilled to join her parents.
She can recall a lot of the trip. “I crossed three frontiers to come here,” she says. The first was from Honduras to Guatemala. The second was from Guatemala to Mexico. The third was from Mexico, at Rio Bravo, into the U.S. “It was the last one that is always described as illegal,” she notes. What it meant for her was getting to see her mother. She’d always wondered why her mother had left her. “One day she called and said, Ricsy, you and your sister are going to come here now.” It was scary and thrilling.
“When we went through Mexico, we had to walk through tall grass,” she reports. It was cold and they slept on the ground. “I got a whole lot of ticks and my sister had to pick them off; I still have scars from all the ticks,” she says. Even now, when she takes a shower she always looks at the scars to remember who she is.
At the border, she was placed in a kid’s shelter, alone and frightened. No mother. No dad. No sister. But weeks later, when someone came through the entryway, she saw the lady she’d only known through photographs. She ran to her mother. “I felt something I’d never experienced before, my mother’s love,” she said. “I didn’t make the decision to come here,” she says. “My mother did, but I’ve never regretted her choice.”
School was hard at first. She didn’t understand English. She worked hard and caught on. She later took AP classes and excelled in them. She was selected for the National Honor Society. For a long time, she says, being undocumented didn’t affect her so much. Then, not being able to get a driver’s license was a big separation. Still, it wasn’t until senior year,” she said, “when I found out I couldn’t get financial aid for college, that I learned my status made all the difference.” Her guidance counselor asked, “do you have a Social Security number, are you illegal?” The words stung. But not as much as hearing that, in North Carolina, she’d have to pay impossible out-of-state tuition rates. “Then I realized what it meant to be illegal,” she said.
Unwilling to give up without trying, Ricsy applied to UNC-Chapel Hill. She was admitted, but was told she’d have to come up with $40,000 or more a year, on her own. So she applied to Davidson County Community College and started writing to every scholarship granting entity she should could uncover. She applied to about 10 a week, for many months. Almost all excluded her because she was undocumented. But eventually she received two private scholarships which, with the cheaper community college tuition, made it possible to go to school, working 20 hours a week.
She graduated with high honors in the sciences, getting an associate degree in two years. She became a leader in student government. She was even selected to speak to a national conference of higher education leaders held in California. She wowed the huge audience with her keynote. She said: “a Social Security number doesn’t show what you’re capable of, what you can accomplish, I won’t let it define me.” She was the first person from Davidson Community College, and the first Latina from anywhere, to be asked to give the address. Her speech was met with tears and ovations. Still, she couldn’t go to Carolina.
She also told the conference:
“I do, though, have this fear, every day, that I might wake up and find myself in jail in a country I barely know. That happened to my brother. He’d been here 10 years and never did anything wrong, just worked hard. They took him at night.”
Sanchez works long hours, paying taxes, taking care of a disabled father, trying to save enough money to go Chapel Hill and, eventually, law school. She is, literally, one of the most inspiring, selfless and heroic humans I’ve ever known. Anywhere.
Donald Trump – the narcissistic, predatory, uninformed and supremely dishonest son of rapacious privilege – thinks we haven’t yet been cruel enough to Ricsy Sanchez. We need to wrench her from loved ones, arrest her, deport her and cast her into a land she doesn’t know. Then America will be great again.
Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor of law at the University of North Carolina.