NC Family’s DNC Story Shows Immigrants They Are Not Alone

Jessica, Silvia, and Lucy Sanchez (from left to right) spoke at the DNC from their Charlotte home about their family's struggles. (Photo via PBS News Hour)

By Michael McElroy

August 24, 2020

The Sanchez family spoke at the Democratic National Convention last week, and talked with Cardinal & Pine about the experience.

In 1995, Jessica Sanchez was born in Tamaulipas, her mother’s home state in northeastern Mexico. That was not the plan.

Her mother, Silvia, a Mexican citizen, was living legally in McAllen, Texas, just across the border. She had a work visa and worked as a nanny to a family with two small children. Silvia and her husband had two of their own children there, Lucy and Iovanna, both US citizens. Jessica would be the third.  

Silvia was six months pregnant when she went back to Mexico to visit her siblings. On the trip, she went into labor. 

What followed is a harrowing story familiar to many immigrant families, one that Jessica, Silvia, and Lucy shared with a national audience last Wednesday as speakers at the Democratic National Convention. They are active in immigration rights groups in Charlotte, where they now live, and have mixed documentation statuses, a common and complex situation for many immigrant families. After the speech, Lucy said, they were flooded with messages from viewers across the country who said the family’s experience mirrored their own. The Sanchez family appreciated the support, she said, and saw it as evidence of the work that still needs to be done.

More than 27,000 people in North Carolina have successfully applied to the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. The program enacted under President Barack Obama has come under frequent attacks by President Donald Trump, who has tried to end these and other protections for the children who came to the US early in their lives.

The Sanchez family had three minutes in a prime spot, soon after pop singer Billie Eilish performed a new song, and not long before Hillary Clinton took her turn.

Democratic Party officials chose the Sanchez family to help sound a warning about a humanitarian crisis under President Trump, and reflect the personal stories behind the country’s struggle for immigration reform. 

These stories show some signs of shifting the narrative in this key swing state.

Complications At Birth

Their story is resonant of those of many other immigrant families in NC. But it is also fundamentally American, reflecting a family that has worked hard, carved a community out of a new city, and, despite their hard work, struggles to pay high medical bills.

Jessica was born three months premature, with spina bifida, a birth defect of the spine, and hydrocephalus, a buildup of water in the brain. The hospital in Mexico put a shunt in Jessica’s brain to relieve the pressure, but it was too big. She would need another. 

“They basically told her to start preparing the funeral,” Lucy told Cardinal & Pine on Friday.

Silvia didn’t see her husband or other two daughters for almost a year as she fought to find Jessica the proper care in Mexico and get her the proper documents so that they could return to Texas.

They applied for a humanitarian visa, but were denied. 

Doctors said Jessica needed major spine surgery, Lucy said, but the hospital couldn’t do it.

I’m sorry, doctors told Silvia, there’s nothing we can do.

“The US wasn’t going to allow her to cross the border legally with her [work] visa and a newborn baby,” Lucy told us.

“So my mom said, ‘I’m going to have to find another way.’  And that’s what she did.”

Charlotte Family Shared Story with Nation

Sitting between Jessica and Lucy, Silvia told her story to the American people on Wednesday night. 

“I took my baby in my arms and traveled for days to the border,” Silvia said in Spanish. “I was looking for a miracle.”

She saw that miracle on the opposite bank of the Rio Grande. The river marked the border between a land where nothing could be done for her 11-month old daughter, and one of endless possibilities; between a future with Jessica in it and one without her.

“I raised her above the water,” she told viewers, “and we crossed.”

“I did what any mother would do to save her daughter’s life.”

Exhausted and terrified about being caught, mother and daughter made their way home to McAllen.  Silvia introduced Jessica to her father and sisters, and they got her the surgery Jessica needed. 

Soon after, in 1996, they moved to Charlotte, where a construction boom was drawing large numbers of Latino workers. 

“We came to America before I was 1-year old,” Jessica said in the DNC video. “Our home is here, North Carolina is all I know.”

They built a place for themselves in Charlotte and their story reflected the city’s. The boom has sustained in Charlotte, and housing prices have risen sharply over recent years. An up-and-coming family in an up-and-coming city. They were active in the community, had two more children, sons this time, and bought their home in 2000 for $80,000. They almost lost it in 2012. It’s worth $180,000 now, Lucy said. Keeping their home has been a point of pride.

“Growing up my parents were really hard workers,” Lucy told us. “We lived comfortably, but we never really took family vacations, because Jessica was always in and out of the hospital, and we had medical bills to pay.” 

An Immigrant Story, an American Story

Jessica’s immigration status and pre-existing conditions, Lucy said, made her uninsurable. Jessica is 25. She’s never had health insurance. 

Her parents had to work non-stop to cover the costs. 

“My dad works 60 hours a week, Sunday to Sunday. My mom was basically taking care of all of us because Dad was constantly traveling outside Charlotte for work,” Lucy told us.

It was the dual power of the Sanchez family’s story, said Héctor Vaca, the immigrant justice director for Action NC, an immigration advocacy group, that prompted Democratic Party officials to choose them for the convention spot.

“The Sanchez family has been very active in their community since we met them a decade ago,” Vaca said. “They’ve been working with us to register voters, to fight for immigrant justice, they’ve gone with us to Washington to lobby around healthcare. They deserve an opportunity to tell their story and show immigrants everywhere that they are not alone,” he said. 

“All these families are perfect examples of the immigrant struggle and how immigrants are building our country.” 

A survey this month, conducted in partnership by Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, UCLA, and USA TODAY, says that 68% of North Carolinians support a “path to citizenship for Dreamers.” Another 51% support a path for all undocumented immigrants.

There is room for further persuasion, Lucy said, and a need to keep telling their story.

Their DNC video was recorded at the end of July, Lucy said, so they did not get the standard convention speaker treatment. No one did, of course. But, they watched it from home and plan to support the Biden-Harris ticket.  

They have not spoken with Joe Biden or Kamala Harris, Lucy said. But, they hope to.


  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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