Fatima walks toward the microphone and stands in front of the judge.
It’s Oct. 30, 2020, and Fatima is in the U.S. District Court in Spartanburg, South Carolina, to testify at the sentencing hearing for Michael and Charlotte Taylor.
They are her parents. Or, they were. Fatima isn’t sure what to call them anymore.
She is 19 years old, and the Taylors raised her as their daughter after adopting her from Nicaragua. This is the story she’s been told since she was 5.
Now, Fatima knows this story is a lie.
The court clerk begins to swear Fatima in.
She didn’t do anything wrong, but she’s still nervous. Fatima has bilateral microphthalmia, meaning her eyes are too small. The judge is too far away for her to see his facial expressions. She can’t see his reactions. Will he believe her? Will he care?
“Please raise your right hand and state your name for the record,” the clerk tells her.
“Fatima Quintana,” she says.
The name still sounds strange to her, even in her own voice. Last year, she had a different name: Fatima Claire Taylor. It was the name in her friends’ phones, on her homework assignments, on the awards she won.
Then, suddenly, she’s someone else. Fatima Quintana. The girl with two names.
The court hearing is about the Taylors, who Fatima now knows never legally adopted her and never secured her citizenship. The last time they were all in court was July 14, 2020, when the Taylors pleaded guilty to conspiracy to harbor an illegal alien. They face a sentence of up to five years in prison.
This hearing is also about Fatima, because she isn’t the U.S. citizen she thought she was, and her life in this country hangs in the balance.
Will she be able to stay here? Will she be able to pursue the career she wants? Will she get the medical care she needs?
Nothing is certain anymore. Nothing is promised.
Fatima knows what happens in court today will reset her life. She wants a chance to make something of it. Her name has changed, but her dreams have not.
Fatima’s lawyer, Brittany Arsiniega, stands next to her in front of the judge. She puts her hand on Fatima’s shoulder and begins to read a statement they wrote together.
“This crime,” Arsiniega says, “has impacted Fatima and will continue to impact Fatima for the rest of her life.”
Fatima was still asleep when a stranger arrived at her Spartanburg home on July 1, 2019.
Charlotte Taylor opened the door and greeted a man with a badge. A special agent with the U.S. Department of State carried a letter in hand, and it was for Fatima.
Fatima got out of bed minutes later. She placed her magnifying glass near the page so she could read the name at the top. She is legally blind.
She looked closely at the words. This was a name she had never read before.
“Fatima Nadieska Quintana.”
She continued reading the message. Her citizenship status was under review, it read, and she needed to attend a meeting at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in a couple of weeks.
With those few words, Fatima’s world began unraveling.
Fatima rode the elevator to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Greenville on July 17, 2019. This meeting better not take long, she thought.
This was the day she was supposed to leave for Camp Leo, a summer retreat for visually impaired children on Hilton Head Island. It was her fourth year at the camp, and she hoped to help organize activities for the younger campers. She wanted to be a teacher. This would be good practice.
All the letter said was that her citizenship status was under review. She was sure there was just a problem with her paperwork, a simple mistake and an easy fix. This whole thing could still be cleared up in time for her to make it to camp, Fatima thought.
Arsiniega greeted Fatima in the seventh-floor conference room. At the same time, and in a nearby conference room, investigators interviewed Michael and Charlotte Taylor.
A federal prosecutor asked Arsiniega to be there to provide Fatima with legal counsel. She is an assistant professor at Furman University and an attorney with the Wyche law firm. She helps run The Justicia Project at the college, a legal clinic focused on helping clients with social justice-related issues.
Arsiniega was the first person to tell Fatima the truth: She was undocumented.
She was also the first person to tell Fatima what that means.
As an undocumented citizen, Fatima can’t get legal identification. She can’t qualify for most health insurance plans. She can no longer receive help from the South Carolina Commission for the Blind. She can’t get a teacher’s license to practice in South Carolina — or a license for dozens of other careers. She cannot legally work to pay for what she needs.
Fatima lives in one of the most restrictive states to be an undocumented immigrant.
She wept in the conference room. Shock and betrayal hit in waves. She felt sick.
Arsiniega couldn’t tell Fatima some things. She didn’t tell Fatima how this could be fixed. She didn’t name a solution. But she could help her find one, and she would work for free.
Fatima then signed a letter to engage Arsiniega as her lawyer.
Arsiniega was by her side when Fatima was reunited with the Taylors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office lobby.
After the meeting, Charlotte Taylor drove Fatima to camp. Taylor kept asking Fatima questions about what she just learned.
“I don’t know,” she replied, again and again.
Fatima listens as Arsiniega continues to read her statement to the judge.
The person she’s describing sounds like a stranger to Fatima. Before the investigation, her life looked nothing like this. It had structure and security.
Now, Fatima could be sent back to a country she doesn’t know, with a language she doesn’t speak.
Her best pathway to citizenship, Arsiniega says, could take as long as a decade. She plans to apply for the U visa program, which is open to people who are victims of a crime and who participate with law enforcement in the investigation.
Fatima has deferred action, meaning she can’t be deported, but that runs out in March 2021.
“She’s suffered so much and continues to suffer because of the defendants’ actions,” Arsiniega says. The consequences are short and long-term, social, emotional, psychological and financial.
Arsiniega also describes another sudden setback in Fatima’s life this year. Two months ago, Fatima was in the hospital. She suffered a stroke.
Because she no longer qualifies for health insurance, Fatima is now responsible for medical bills that total more than $10,000. They are due immediately.
Arsiniega places the blame for all of this on the Taylors.
“The defendants want to paint a picture where they are heroes who went to Nicaragua and saved this child who had visual problems and brought her back to give her a better life,” Arsiniega says to the judge.
“I believe they see themselves as heroes. But that’s not true. Heroes would not lie to their loved ones for 15 years. Heroes would not leave someone in the position that they’ve left her in, this position of financial vulnerability, medical vulnerability that she faces as she tries to enter into adulthood in the United States.”
Arsiniega leads Fatima to her seat near the back of the courtroom.
On July 24, 2019, Fatima read an email from Arsiniega and felt a kind of pull, as if a thread was forming and drawing her toward something beyond herself.
The email contained a translated letter from her biological mother, penned originally in Spanish, and it arrived in Fatima’s inbox one week after her first meeting with Arsiniega. It took about 14 years for the message to reach Fatima.
Her mother wrote it before Fatima left for the United States. Fatima told Arsiniega the Taylors never gave her the letter.
Federal agents turned it over as part of the investigation, and Arsiniega had it translated. Fatima knows only basic Spanish that she learned in school.
The typed letter on the phone screen Fatima held is the only evidence of the family she had before she met the Taylors. In it, her biological mother calls her daughter “Little Fatima.” “New light.” “My precious little doll.” “My treasure.”
“Always and every day I will be with you,” the letter says. “Although not physically but in my body, my mind, and my heart. Your face and your smile give me more strength in my life. I love you, my love, with all of my might.”
Her message begins with a family tree, the names and birthdays of an aunt, a cousin, a younger brother.
Before the letter, Fatima’s Nicaragua returned only in flashes and fragments. She remembered the plates of rice and beans she ate at the orphanage where she lived. Shaking salt onto orange slices, a habit she took to America and into her teenage years.
She remembered climbing mango trees and chasing iguanas on the grounds. Rats scurrying across the floor. The heat and the rain.
She remembered meeting the Taylors in 2005, when they arrived for a stop on a mission trip. Fatima also remembered what they brought to share: toothbrushes, stuffed animals, Band-Aids, balloons, cheese crackers.
The Taylors found Fatima that day, or maybe Fatima found them. It’s not clear exactly how or why the connection was made, but it was. Someone snapped a photograph during their introduction. In it, Fatima holds a blue balloon. Or maybe a stuffed animal. For Fatima, it is unclear because she no longer has the picture. But she knew she held something she never had before.
The Taylors appear in the letter, too, but not by name. Her mother calls them her “new home.” She tells Fatima to “be very well behaved.” “Love everything that is around you,” the letter reads.
Fatima saw herself in these words. She saw herself in the way it’s written. Fatima loved to write, and her mother is a good writer, she thought.
Fatima wanted to know more. Do they look alike? What else do they share?
The letter gives her a name and a birthday for her mother.
That was all Fatima needed to search for her on Facebook.
Fatima did it again. She wrote Taylor instead of Quintana on the top of her assignment in the Spartanburg High School classroom.
Senior year started on Aug. 19, 2019, and she had a new name. Fatima kept forgetting it.
Fatima Quintana was the name she decided to use in the rosters for teacher’s cadets and academic honors societies, and on the pages of the senior class yearbook. It was her legal name, after all.
She still didn’t know what was going to happen next to Fatima Quintana, but at least she now knew more about her past.
It’s all laid out in the indictment charging the Taylors with harboring an illegal alien and conspiracy to defraud and commit offenses against the United States.
In July 2005, Michael and Charlotte Taylor worked with Fatima’s orphanage to bring her to the U.S. on a B2 medical visa to treat her eye condition. They got her another visa in May 2006. They knew they were supposed to return her to Nicaragua when that visa expired.
The Taylors told Fatima they fell in love with her and decided to adopt her. They did try to adopt her in 2006 but were denied when they lied on the application, according to court records. The indictment says the couple submitted “fraudulent and false” information, including a forged letter from a psychologist.
They were warned repeatedly by the U.S. and Nicaraguan governments to return Fatima.
Instead, their secret festered. They told Fatima and others that she was adopted. They enrolled her in Spartanburg County schools under a fake name — Fatima Claire Taylor, according to the indictment.
Fatima thinks back on her childhood, and the misshapen pieces start to fit. Like how the Taylors always took her to a walk-in clinic whenever she was sick instead of to a family physician like her siblings. And how the Taylors refused to allow her to travel back to Nicaragua on church mission trips. They said the family couldn’t afford it. Fatima didn’t believe that now.
Attorneys can’t explain why the U.S. government didn’t act on her case. Fatima dropped off the government’s radar after 2008, when she was still a child. If they had pursued the matter further then, Fatima’s story might have gone differently — it’s much easier for an undocumented minor in the U.S. to gain citizenship than it is for an undocumented adult.
Ultimately, it was the Taylors’ own actions that triggered the chain of events that led to their criminal charges.
In December 2018, the Taylors asked a school resource officer to investigate an ex-boyfriend who had allegedly harassed Fatima. But when the officer asked Charlotte Taylor for Fatima’s Social Security number so he could fill out a report, she couldn’t give it to him.
Charlotte Taylor gave “multiple varying accounts” for why she couldn’t provide a Social Security number, the officer wrote in his incident report. That the Social Security office “lost” Fatima’s paperwork. That she actually did have the card but lost it. That she had a temporary card but misplaced it.
The only document she seemed to have was on Microsoft Word — a translated version of Fatima’s Nicaraguan birth certificate.
When the Taylors couldn’t prove they were Fatima’s legal guardians, the investigation quietly shifted. For the first time in 10 years, federal agents turned their attention back to the Taylors, and Fatima finally learned the truth.
She never was a Taylor.
It was hard to unlearn her signature. The big round ‘Q’ is so different from the skinny, hard “T” she had written since she learned to write.
She kept practicing. And when she made a mistake, she erased it and tried again.
Fatima sits quietly in the back of the courtroom while Michael Taylor, the man she had called father for 15 years, steps in front of the judge and begins to speak. This is the first time the 67-year-old has spoken more than three words during these formal proceedings.
“Your Honor, I’m humbled and have been humbled during this whole process,” Taylor says, “and I realize what had started as an opportunity to have a daughter, and to love her like our own, by our own actions did not turn out the way we wanted it to turn out. I am deeply sorry and incredibly regretful for the actions that I took.”
Judge Donald Coggins has a question for Michael Taylor. It’s something Fatima still wants to know, too.
What, exactly, was the Taylors’ plan?
“When she became of age to go to college or to get a job, she was going to have to have a Social Security number,” Coggins says. “She was going to have to be able to show immigration status. Exactly what did you think was going to happen?”
Michael Taylor takes a breath.
He says they “had begun to try to find” an immigration attorney for Fatima a couple of years ago when she was a sophomore in high school.
“We always thought we had more time to get it done,” he says. “We just didn’t.”
Fatima tried to turn her phone on and off, but the screen remained dark.
It was November 2019. It had been four months since the rug was ripped out from under her.
She felt like a string of clichés and similes and metaphors. Like a bug under a microscope, a guinea pig in a science experiment. Like she was being watched. Like she was in a cage.
And her phone was her lifeline. It was how she connected with Arsiniega, her friends, her boyfriend. It was her link to the world outside the home she shared with the Taylors.
Her phone was working when she gave it to Charlotte Taylor to charge overnight. But it was broken when she got it back the next day. The phone company said it was water damage. The Taylors said they had nothing to do with it.
But did it even matter anymore what really happened? Because here’s what Fatima knew: She no longer trusted the Taylors. She believed the Taylors monitored the messages on her phone and what she did on her computer.
Fatima was disoriented. Her feelings were all over the place. Some days, she wanted space. Other days, she just wanted to be close to the woman she still called mom. At times, she was conflicted about participating in the case against the Taylors. She didn’t always want to get them in trouble.
But on this day, she was angry. About all of it.
Angry about that broken phone. Angry about the lies, about the government that failed her and was still failing her. Angry that the Taylors went to an orphanage and what — just decided to pick her up and take her home? Like she was an apple in the bunch?
She was angry her time belonged to courts and hearings and paperwork. She had to leave classes to meet with Arsiniega to talk about the case, The United States of America vs. Michael and Charlotte Taylor, and her citizenship effort. She was even getting irritated during counseling. Couldn’t the counselor ask about something other than her case?
And she was angry that she was angry. She didn’t feel like herself. She was used to challenges every day, to moving through a world that was not made for her.
She was patient. She was kind. She possessed faith in a higher power and better tomorrows.
A better tomorrow. That was what she needed. She could get there on her own, she thought, with just a little help.
And a new phone.
Fatima walked through the halls of Spartanburg High School. On Nov. 26, 2019, the final bell rang, and she was taking some big steps.
Fatima told Tina Sparks, her vision coach at school, how she felt about living with the Taylors since they were arrested a month ago. The mounting frustration, the sadness, the broken phone. The stress Fatima felt took up so much space at the Taylors’ house. The place she had called home took on a different shape, and she no longer fit.
Fatima was 18. She was an adult. The Taylors couldn’t stop her from leaving.
The only way for her to move on was for her to move out. But where could she go?
You could come home with me, Sparks replied.
Tina and Robbie Sparks cleared out one of the bedrooms in their home. It was borrowed space, but it was still space. Fatima could talk to whomever and say whatever she wanted there.
As she made her way toward Tina Sparks’ car in the parking lot, she rolled her backpack behind her.
The life she could take with her fit inside.
After her husband sits down, Charlotte Taylor, 64, stands to address the court.
She tells the judge that Fatima did know about her biological mother and the letter she wrote. Fatima saw her mother before she left for the United States, and the Taylors arranged the visit, Charlotte Taylor says. They raised Fatima as if she was their daughter, and they are proud of her.
She quickly moves her focus to Fatima, who sits toward the back of the courtroom, Arsiniega still at her side.
“And Fatima, I just want to tell you that we love you,” Taylor says. “We love you deeply. And I know you’ve heard lots and lots of things, and we’re sorry. And we tried desperately to make that correct, and we will continue to try, and you know that.”
She then turns toward Tina Sparks, who sits on the end of a row near Fatima.
“And Ms. Sparks, thank you for loving her and taking care of her for the last year,” she says. “Thank you to Robbie, as well. You’ve given her a loving home and a place where she wanted to be. Thank you.
“And your honor, excuse me, just again as Ms. Arsiniega is saying we’re trying to portray that we are heroes? We are not. We have been a champion for Fatima as best that we knew how, aside from the criminal acts that we have been charged with. So, we don’t think of ourselves as a hero in any way for that.”
As Charlotte Taylor sits down, Fatima stands up and leaves the courtroom. The judge calls for a brief recess.
Arsiniega tells the Taylors Fatima would like to talk with them during the recess.
They no longer share a name or a home, but Fatima still calls them Mom and Dad when they talk or text. But she changed their names to Charlotte and Michael in her phone contacts, and she doesn’t call often. Still, their connection is strained, not severed. It is different, not disappeared.
So, Fatima sits down with Michael and Charlotte Taylor in a small room while Arsiniega stands outside the door. The talk turns small and familiar. The conversation begins like so many others have for 15 years.
The Taylors ask Fatima how she is doing.
Fatima felt something bubbling inside of her as she stared at the blank page in front of her. The blank page wasn’t a hole, an empty pit, a sign of the missing. It was a place to plant something new.
She decided to write about herself.
It was a Friday in the fall semester of her senior year in 2019. Her creative writing teacher set aside Friday classes for students to write about whatever they wanted.
Normally, Fatima didn’t get personal in her poetry. She always tried to write about the whimsical and weird and delightful. But by the end, her poetry inevitably veered toward the tragic.
Like the poem about the beautiful princess. Her heart was made of glass. Or the one she wrote about purple cats? They drove purple cars. The cars crashed.
Fatima also explained it this way: She never wrote happy, although writing did make her happy. Poetry was a release and a repository, and Fatima had a lot to say during her creative writing classes. Her parents were just indicted. She moved out. Court appearances and unanswered questions loomed.
The words just sort of rushed out of her, like she didn’t have to try. This felt right and true.
She wrote about feeling “forgotten” and “alone” and “abandoned.” “She no longer trusted anybody.”
The next Friday, she wrote more. Even more the Friday after that and the Friday following, too.
“The old me dreamt about her mother, but the new me wasn’t told anything about her.”
By the end of the poem and her senior year, Fatima named herself:
“The new me had to bury the old me by herself.
Bury her in a land that was her real home.
If I knew it all then
Would I do it again?
If they knew what I knew
What would they say instead?
The people whom I called mom and dad lied.
Lied about a lot of things.
Now, I am fighting for my right,
Right to stay in this country.
Fighting my way to citizenship
While trying to still keep a healthy family relationship.
It was my turn to make myself happy.
Hi, my name is Fatima.
I am the girl with two names.”
Fatima sat in the Myrtle Beach rental, Tina Sparks by her side. She left for vacation with the Sparks family hours after she graduated on May 30, 2020.
A computer screen faced them. The cursor blinked. And blinked. And blinked. It felt like it was keeping time, and that time was forever. They were stuck — already — on the first few questions on the online college application.
What should she put for her father’s name? Her mother’s? Their completed education levels?
She decided on Michael Taylor, graduate of Furman University, and Charlotte Taylor, who attended Greenville Technical College. She also added her birth mother’s name, Xochilth Quintana. She didn’t know Xochilth’s educational background.
She entered zeroes in the spaces for her Social Security number. Nine little and big voids.
Furman University was her top choice partly because Arsiniega teaches there. Fatima also wasn’t the first or only legally blind student. She felt comfortable, and, as a private liberal arts school, Furman could consider her application. In South Carolina, it’s against the law for public universities to accept undocumented students.
The Greenville campus was only a 50-minute drive from Fatima’s home, but could she even call Spartanburg home anymore?
Fatima didn’t know what to write for her address. She was technically homeless, she thought. The Sparks’ place was a respite not a residence. Should she put homeless? She settled on another word.
She scrolled down to the essay portion: Talk about an important moment in your life, an experience, what makes you you.
This, Fatima thought, she had already answered.
She submitted her poem, “Two Names, One Girl.”
The application was not her only assignment during her vacation: She had to write a victim impact statement before the next court hearing. In those two pages, she told the judge how the Taylors’ actions upended her life and compromised her future.
She described the emotional toll of their betrayal.
“It made my senior year one of the worst years ever,” Fatima wrote. “I felt alone, I was so confused and overwhelmed.”
These are the consequences Fatima dealt with each day. It was time the Taylors faced consequences, too, she wrote the judge.
“I feel that the Taylors should at least serve six months or some time behind bars.”
Everyone rises as Judge Coggins reenters the courtroom. Before he issues the sentence for what he calls the Taylors’ “deplorable” actions, he says they are “not the only ones who let this young lady down.”
He lists officials with the orphanage, the Department of State, immigration services and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“Nobody looks good in this situation,” Coggins says. “As a result, this young lady is in a circumstance that none of us would wish on our worst enemy, a person without a country, without a status, who has remarkable talents but equally remarkable needs with respect to medical intervention, assistance for her disability to allow her to function, and just the very basic status required for her to continue her education and then pursue her chosen vocation or profession.”
Coggins sentences the Taylors to five years of probation and orders them to pay $145,000 in restitution to Fatima to help cover her medical and educational expenses. The Taylors will also be placed on home detention for the first year of probation and will be allowed to leave only for court-approved reasons like doctor’s appointments or grocery shopping.
During their probation, the Taylors must contact Fatima only in writing or through Arsiniega or Tina Sparks, Coggins says, but Fatima can contact them if she wishes.
It’s his intent, the judge says before dismissing the court, to put power back in Fatima’s hands.
Fatima stands up from her seat and begins the walk out of the courtroom. She is not with the Taylors, but she is not alone. Arsiniega and Tina Sparks are, again, by her side.
Her old life is still in pieces. But at least the case is closed, and the court record proves that none of this is her fault.
She is not leaving with a guaranteed future, but she knows what she is fighting for — a college degree, a career, her own family. And she will live this life in the United States.
Fatima is not leaving with an immediate solution to her problems, just the next steps and a clear belief in who she will be as she takes them.
She is Fatima Quintana. This is her name now, and she will decide what it means.
Fatima, 20, is in the second semester of her freshman year at Furman University. She’s now interested in pursuing political science and possibly practicing law.
In early January, Fatima found her biological mother through Facebook.
Fatima has a full-ride scholarship to attend Furman. Her only source of income is the restitution from the Taylors. The Taylors are currently required to pay $500 a month. At this rate, it will take more than 24 years for them to pay the $145,000 they owe Fatima.
Arsiniega tried to renew the yearlong deferred action Fatima received. She was told U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would not extend it past its expiration because the case against the Taylors was closed.
Arsiniega plans on pursuing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals for Fatima. The DACA program protects undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children from deportation.
However, it costs about $500 to apply for DACA — money Fatima does not have. Arsiniega requested that the fee be waived because Fatima likely qualifies for an exemption, and they are waiting to hear back.
Arsiniega still plans to submit an application for a U visa.
The U visa program, passed by Congress in 2000, limits the number of applications that can be approved to 10,000 annually. The wait time is currently five to 10 years. The number of people on the waitlist has grown by more than 1,000% in the past decade.
As of 2019, the U visa program had 152,000 pending applications.
When Fatima applies, she will be at the back of that line.
This story is based on multiple interviews with Fatima Quintana and Brittany Arsiniega from January 2020 to February 2021, as well as court documents, incident reports, transcripts from United States District Court and an April 2020 report from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. The Greenville News also attended court hearings. Where possible, we relied on transcripts to recreate dialogue during the court scenes. We relied on our interviews with Fatima to express what she was thinking as events unfolded.
The Greenville News interviewed Assistant U.S. Attorney Carrie Fisher Sherard, who led the criminal prosecution against the Taylors, and Resident Agent in Charge Ed Roth and Special Agent Christopher Bahleda with the Diplomatic Security Service. Their agency within the U.S. Department of State helped with the investigation. The Greenville News also spoke with Ingrid Eagly, a professor of law at UCLA, and Sophia Rodriguez, assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of Maryland.
Michael and Charlotte Taylor declined to speak with The Greenville News.