Jacqueline Mayorga is a 20-year-old sophomore majoring in Spanish and biology at a private college in Columbia. She's what's called a DREAMer. Her parents are undocumented immigrants from Mexico who brought her to South Carolina when she was three. In two years, after she graduates, she hopes to go to med school. But that might be impossible in South Carolina. In fact, the reason Mayorga attends the private Columbia College is because no public university in the state would take her. South Carolina is one of two states that ban undocumented students from attending public higher education institutions, no matter how long they've lived here or if they graduated from a South Carolina high school, like Mayorga did. Mayorga is also something of a dreamer because she's pinning her hopes on immigration reform in a state that has long been hostile to people not from here.
"I'm hoping for immigration reform, which would be the best outcome," she says. "If not, I feel like everything I've worked for would have gone to waste — all my four years in college — because I'm not going to be able to pursue a career or even attend medical school. That's going to be out of my reach unless I go to another country, which is not in my plans."
A proposed state law introduced last week aims to help students like Mayorga. The House's minority leader, Todd Rutherford (D-Columbia), unveiled a state-based DREAM Act, which stands for Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors. The measure would allow children of undocumented immigrants who went to a South Carolina high school to earn in-state tuition at a public university and qualify for state-sponsored scholarships. Similar laws have taken root in state legislatures since California and Texas first passed DREAM Act-type legislation over a decade ago. Other states have followed suit — New York's assembly passed a law this week — but South Carolina still lags behind.
"It is gaining ground and it's also gaining bipartisan support in states across the country," says National Immigration Law Center senior attorney Tanya Broder. "Almost 70 percent of foreign-born U.S. residents live in a state that has a tuition equity law or policy."
Rutherford says he modeled his bill after one recently signed by New Jersey's Republican governor, Chris Christie. And in a clear attempt at wooing GOP support, Rutherford said in a statement when he released his measure, "This fiscally conservative bill would get government out of the way and help break the cycle of dependency by providing students the tools to be competitive in a global economy."
The bill is not likely to pass this year. Because the lawmaker introduced it so late in the second half of a two-year session, it could get buried under legislative priorities and never see a debate on the House or Senate floor, let alone a bill signing. But Rutherford hopes it begins a conversation. "It's to see where the level of interest is," he says. "So even if I can't get it passed this year, we at least start the dialogue."
The state-based DREAM Act bill comes as Congress is debating immigration reform at the federal level. Business leaders across South Carolina have been pushing for a federal fix. Some evangelical leaders here, too, have been advocating for comprehensive immigration reform. In deeply red South Carolina, immigration reform has long been a controversial issue. In 2008 a far-right challenger to U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican who supports immigration reform, based his entire campaign on the incumbent's support for it, labeling him Senator Grahamnesty. In November, about two dozen tourism industry leaders met with Graham for a roundtable discussion in Charleston, where immigration reform dominated the conversation. According to one person who was there, Graham predicted that in 2014 the U.S. House will have to get the ball rolling on reform, but said he feared it would end up being a piecemeal kind of rollout featuring several different bills rather than a comprehensive omnibus package.
The issue continues to divide the GOP in Washington, but U.S. House Speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama have been in apparently fruitful talks about how Congress might come together on reform. Earlier this month, Boehner said Republicans in Congress didn't trust the president to enforce immigration laws, which at the time signaled that movement on the issue had stalled. But this week Boehner said he and the president had a "very good, healthy conversation on immigration." On Feb. 26, more than a dozen businesses in South Carolina signed on to a letter sent by more than 600 business leaders across the country to Boehner that urged him to act on immigration reform this year.
"We cannot afford to be content and watch a dysfunctional immigration system work against our overall national interest," the letter stated. "In short, immigration reform is an essential element of a jobs agenda and economic growth. It will add talent, innovation, investment, products, businesses, jobs, and dynamism to our economy." The letter was released by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Partnership for a New American Economy, a national group advocating for reform.
President Obama had long been supportive of a federal DREAM Act that would give legal status to children of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States before they were 16. Eligible DREAMers would have to be under 30, have lived in the United States for the past five years, have a high school diploma or GED or served in the military, and no serious criminal record. That law never passed Congress, but Obama signed an executive order in 2012 that would allow temporary work status to those eligible for the DREAM Act who applied.
Mayorga has that deferred action status and so she works multiple jobs while taking classes at Columbia College, one as a college tutor, another as a waitress in a Mexican restaurant, and a third as a researcher at the University of South Carolina's college of social work. In the meantime, as she prepares to graduate in 2016 with hopes to attend med school — somehow — in South Carolina, she's hoping state lawmakers pass Rutherford's version of the DREAM Act. That can make for a difficult life sometimes, never knowing how things might play out for her future.
"It's hard because I feel like I can't have dreams because I have to be negative about it and be like 'If this doesn't happen, I have to have plan B' for everything," she says. "It's just really overwhelming because I can work so hard, and at the end it can be all for nothing. Or I can work really hard and at the end it will be worth it — but I don't know that."