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Dreamers Deal With Challenges in S.C.

Jan 02, 2018 01:03PM ● Published by Emily Stevenson

Sarai Bautista

By Emily Stevenson

Johnathan Rivera Garcia is a 19-year-old Veracruz, Mexico native. He’s lived in the United States for more than 17 years, the past 15 in Charleston. He plans to go to school for international studies, with the goal of doing humanitarian work helping teens and young adults, maybe even working for the U.N. one day. He’s currently applying to colleges in Ohio, Michigan, and Colorado.

And when he leaves South Carolina, he doesn’t want to come back.

“I would study in one of those states and stay in one of those states,” says Garcia. “I haven’t had the best experience here in South Carolina with the whole DACA thing.”

Garcia graduated from high school last year. Despite being accepted to the College of Charleston, Trident Technical College, and Hampden Sydney College, Garcia is not currently attending an institute of higher education. He didn’t start school because his status expired in September; beginning college wasn’t an option as he worked toward renewal. But now that his status is renewed, a financial roadblock is in his way.

DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) students, also referred to as “Dreamers,” in South Carolina are charged out-of-state tuition to attend public universities, regardless of how long they’ve lived in South Carolina. They are also ineligible for scholarships and financial aid, making attending college nearly impossible.

And they do want to go to college, to study and work and contribute to the state.

“If you talk to young professionals, they really want to continue their education,” says Evelyn Lugo, president and founder of the South Carolina Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “I see that every day, and I wish we would focus more on the good, because we have a lot of that.”

Should DACA be discontinued, however, there would be less good on which to focus. According to a University of Southern California study, South Carolina stands to lose $262.7 million per year if DACA is eliminated. Greenville and Spartanburg counties stand to lose the most, followed by the Charleston and Beaufort areas.

Garcia is one of the individuals South Carolina stands to lose.

“[DACA] is a really big issue, and so far it’s not going so well for us,” he says. “But at the same time, if it doesn’t happen, I will find a different route, and if I can’t, I’ll see if I can go back to my own country and study there. If I have no opportunities here, I’d rather just move away.”

An August 2016 report issued by the New American Economy notes that approximately 16,000 immigrants in South Carolina are self-employed, and 47,000 people in the state are employed at firms owned by immigrants. Immigrant-owned businesses generated $207.3 million in business income in 2014.

Their entrepreneurial spirit, the contributions they make to the local economy, and the spending power the immigrant community holds is in stark contrast to what’s often plastered across the evening news. 

“We’re not looking for handouts,” says Lugo. “That’s the sentiment that I hear every day. They want to work. They want to contribute to the economy. They want to be part of South Carolina.”

Sarai Bautista agrees.

“My family is extremely hardworking, and we’ve never spent money that we haven’t earned or that came from the backs of Americans,” she says. “On the opposite, we’ve paid into Social Security and health care. That is true for many undocumented families.”

Unfortunately, South Carolina still makes it difficult for immigrants, particularly teenagers and young adults, to become contributing members of the state.

Bautista, a native of Puebla, Mexico, came to the U.S. with her family when she was 11. She was in the 11th grade when she realized she “had no future” here.

“I knew that even though I had worked hard in school and had been a good student, it wasn’t going to mean anything when I graduated. I wasn’t eligible for any student loans, any scholarships I might have earned.”

After high school graduation, Bautista worked at a Mexican restaurant, making $4-$6 an hour under the table. It wasn’t until DACA came in that she began working at Chick-Fil-A – the first non-temporary job she’d ever had where she made more than minimum wage.

Once she became certified under DACA, Bautista enrolled at Greenville Technical College in 2014, intending to study radiology. She was partway through the program before realizing that the state of South Carolina did not grant occupational licenses to DACA recipients. She started over in 2016, choosing instead to study engineering graphics.

“That news was hard, because up to that point I had completed phase one [of the radiology program],” she says. “It took a lot of work.”

Bautista works part-time as an office assistant at a civil engineering company to fund her education. Though technical colleges are often touted as budget-friendly alternatives to their four-year counterparts, affording college is still a challenge for immigrants, who must pay out-of-state tuition. Bautista pays as she goes, taking only a class or two at a time. The situation rankles, particularly since Bautista and her family have lived in Easley since 2002.

“Even when I was working under a fake Social Security Number, they would take money out for Social Security and health care,” she says. “It didn’t matter that I’ve been paying taxes since my first job at age 17. I wasn’t eligible for in-state tuition, and I’m still not eligible.”

Aside from Alabama, South Carolina is the only state in the country to ban DACA and undocumented students from in-state tuition and financial aid. Many institutions across the state take issue with the laws, including Furman University’s president, Dr. Elizabeth Davis.

“Furman University fully supports the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program,” Davis says. “They were brought here as children through no choice of their own, and those who are at Furman now are fellow students and co-workers who call this country their home.”

If these young students are not educated, or if they leave the state to attend university and don’t return, that’s money out of South Carolina’s pocket.

Marlon Kimpson, State Senator for District 42 in Charleston, estimates that immigrants pay $230 million in taxes in the Charleston region and their spending power is $700 million.

“It’s my view that if we can get the undocumented immigrants documented, the numbers will go even higher,” Kimpson says. “In this country, we need all hands on deck. All people who reside here, we need them contributing in a proactive way to our economy.”

Dr. Stephanie Cooper-Lewter, vice president of initiatives and public policy for the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina, says that she sees immigrants making a tremendous impact economically.

“It’s one of the fastest-growing segments of the population, and they work in all sectors,” she says. “Some are on the high end, doctors and lawyers and engineers who are here on certain visas. And then others are the low-wage workers, maybe migrant and seasonal farm workers, housekeepers, or landscapers.”

As industries across the board face workforce shortages, a shortage of immigrant laborers could wreak havoc. Bautista says of her friends who are studying, one wants to be a nurse and another a teacher, both much-needed professionals in South Carolina.

“We can serve others, and we can bring labor where there is labor missing,” she says. “There is a shortage of teachers, but if the Dream Act doesn’t pass, my friend will have to leave South Carolina and teach in another state until her DACA finishes off.”

Still, certain industries are more popular for immigrant populations. A 2017 study by the American Immigration Council showed that the largest shares of immigrant workers were in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting; construction; and accommodation and food services, at 19.3, 12.3, and 9.3 percent, respectively.

“They work in all sorts of jobs just like everyone else, trying to have a better life and trying to stay in the only country they know or remember,” says Tammy Besherse, director of immigration policy at Appleseed Legal Justice.

Besherse and her team are a nonprofit law firm. They don’t represent individual cases, but they undertake class action lawsuits, in addition to legislative and policy work and community organizing. They are currently working and encouraging various organizations across the state to pursue a “Clean Dream” act to make sure that current DACA recipients don’t lose their status in March.

“The main issue is what’s going to happen to the DACA youth if no federal law is passed to protect them,” she says. “Anything at the Statehouse we think we need to be involved in, we’re there at a local level, national level.”

But the divisive nature of the immigration issue and the way it splits down party lines often prohibits real change.

“I feel like, unfortunately, policy dictates how they’re treated, and I think we can do better in terms of recognizing their resilience and the contributions they can make,” Cooper-Lewter says. “I think sometimes people focus on one aspect over another and don’t see the full range.”

Kimpson agrees.

“There’s not really much discussion about the immigration issue [in the Statehouse], but when it is discussed, the majority tends to defer to the president and Republican majority in both the U.S. Senate and House on these issues,” says Kimpson. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m in favor of providing a pathway for Dreamers to have legal status.”

Kimpson says he “shudders” at the thought that immigrants have to fear deportation when they were brought to this country through no fault of their own.

It’s a fear Bautista knows well – and tries to keep at bay.

“I can’t focus on disaster and go to school at the same time, because school is a huge financial drain,” she says. “I’m hanging by the thread of the promise that the Dream Act will get voted on this December.”

Still, she takes certain precautions, such as being careful of what she carries on her person; if she is arrested by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), they will confiscate whatever she’s carrying at the time and will not return it when they drop her off at the Mexican border.

It’s a sad reality for a bright student who wanted to go to college to study radiation and contribute to the community she’s called home for 16 years.

“I consider Easley, South Carolina my community, and I am very proud of it,” Bautista says. “Legislatively, it has done much to keep me from succeeding, but I feel that the people I’ve met while I’ve been here and grown up is not what’s represented [on the news]. The people who have gotten to know me here support me and want me to be well.”

The Hispanic Alliance, based in Greenville, is one such organization that works to increase access to resources for Hispanic communities. An important aspect of their work is the youth leadership accelerator model, which is designed to empower immigrant student communities and Dreamers to increase awareness of education inequity and advocate for changes in the state legislature to achieve equal access to public, post-secondary education for all.

Adela Mendoza, executive director of the Hispanic Alliance, says that our state in particular is facing a critical paradox of a qualified workforce with legislation that limits immigrants’ access to public college education.

“In order to build prosperity for South Carolina, we need to urge our elected officials to enact common-sense state legislation that allows us to accelerate the development of an urgently needed, well-trained workforce,” Mendoza says. “Our state needs their talents and contributions to build a strong economy for all South Carolinians.”

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