For 6,400 South Carolinians, DACA is more than just headlines 

Checking in on Charleston's Dreamers

click to enlarge Johnny Rivera-Garcia

Jonathan Boncek file photo

Johnny Rivera-Garcia

At least 6,400 people in South Carolina had little to no choice in crossing the border from Mexico — or El Salvador, or Honduras, or Canada — when their parents decided to escape the circumstances of their home countries for a chance at a better life in America.

Many of those dreams are now on hold while the 798,900 Americans who are protected under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals wait to see what their government decides to do with them.

Hundreds of thousands of young Americans who have known no other home suddenly find their lives hanging by a thread, with their safety, education, and future used as political cudgels on the national stage.

DACA, as its usually shortened, was an Obama-era policy allowing those who came to the United States with their parents before the age of 16 to apply to avoid deportation. To qualify under the program's strict conditions, a recipient must have been in the country between June 15, 2007 and June 15, 2012; be in school, in the military, or a high school graduate; and have no felonies on his or her record. Even then, DACA protections must be renewed every two years, and the program does not guarantee a path to citizenship and the benefits it confers.

DACA was established by executive action. That alone left it vulnerable to the snap of another president's fingers. President Trump's Department of Justice announced that DACA would end in six months on Sept. 5, making some immigration hard-liners happy despite the fact that most recent polls show support for the program.

The recent three-day government shutdown basically centered on whether or not Republicans would vote to extend relief for the Dreamers: a nickname given to DACA recipients that alludes to the failed DREAM Act, a bill introduced in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) in 2001. As of now, President Trump has flip-flopped on Dreamers enough times for them to lose faith in his words. On Jan. 23, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders said that a proposed legislative solution by Sen. Durbin and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina "should be declared dead on arrival" by President Trump. The House Problem Solvers Caucus introduced a different bipartisan bill on Monday that concedes $1.6 for a border wall. Lawmakers now have until Feb. 8 — when the latest short-term funding bill expires — to conjure up a solution or face the possibility of another shutdown.

For now, Dreamers are safe. On Jan. 13, USCIS announced that they would resume accepting renewal applications "until further notice" following a federal court order from the Northern District of California.

We spoke to some of Charleston's own Dreamers a few days after Trump's decision to end the policy. They told us about their lives, fears, anxieties, and their hopes for the future. They also all had one thing in common: their undocumented status made it very difficult for them to go to college in South Carolina.

That's what a group of bipartisan state representatives are trying to change.

S.C. House bill 4435, also known as the S.C. Dreamers Act, would allow those receiving DACA protections in South Carolina to pay in-state tuition at public universities. It would also open the doors to occupational licenses and much-needed state grants and scholarships.

S.C. Rep. Neal Collins (R-Pickens) was inspired to propose the bill after he heard input from 30 Dreamers at the Joint Citizens and Legislative Committee on Children in the fall.

"For the students in high school or just out of high school, they're in a situation where they either have to pay out-of-state tuition, or even international tuition, to the point that many of them can’t afford it and end up not going to college," Collins says. "We’ve invested in them for upwards of 10 years of their lives, and it makes no sense at that point to put up obstacles."

Collins is one of the few Republicans who was hoping for a solution to the Dreamer question during last week's federal government shutdown.

"Once they do [act on Dreamers], it makes this bill even more important," he said.

Johnny Rivera-Garcia and Alex Avila both feel lost. They have ambitions like any other hard-working American, but the roadblocks to reaching their goals have left them thinking of options beyond South Carolina. Here's what they're thinking now.

click to enlarge Johnny Rivera-Garcia was accepted to CofC but can't afford to pay the DACA-required out-of-state tuition - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Johnny Rivera-Garcia was accepted to CofC but can't afford to pay the DACA-required out-of-state tuition

Johnny Rivera-Garcia

Age: 19
Works at: H&M
Lives in: North Charleston, S.C.

CP: Last we talked you'd been accepted into CofC, but you couldn't go because the tuition price offered to you for not being a citizen or resident was too expensive. What are you doing now?

JRC: Well today’s my last today at H&M because I’m moving to Ohio. Ohio is one of the states that gives in-state tuition for DACA recipients. I already applied to their community college in Columbus, and I’m gonna start a job over there. From February to May, I’m gonna save up and take at least two courses in the summer. Maybe I’ll apply for Amazon, because they have one over there. I bought a ticket and just went, my mom was kind of worried and scared. It was my first time flying alone, but it was fine. I’m living with a few friends of mine that I met. When you're Hispanic and they're Hispanic, you meet and you kind of connect and go with it. I was planning to take trips to Ohio, Michigan, and I guess Colorado, because I had a paper where [an advisor from CofC] showed me which states have in-state tuition after a year of residency. Living expenses over there are way better than they are over here.

CP: What are your thoughts on the recent shutdown being blamed on Democrats trying to establish protection for Dreamers?

JRC: I just hope they stop arguing and pointing fingers and just start talking about the facts. We don’t have anything to do with our parents coming here undocumented. They escaped poverty and violence because they wanted a better life for us. I was one year old — I had nothing to do with it. All I wanted was to have an American Dream. I’d be the first one to graduate college. That’s my American Dream, and it’s hard to hold on to with what’s going on.

CP: The DACA renewal fee increased to $495 in 2016. When did you renew and how did you pay for it?

JRC: I renewed in August. I had two years and now I’ll have two more years. For 2019 I’ll be able to renew until 2121. My mom helped me — half and half.

CP: Have your plans changed from what you told us in the fall?

JRC: I don’t see nothing. South Carolina is one of those Southern states where the wages are low, the living costs are super high. People are coming here and all the moving increases our rent. [My mother, my sister, and I] used to pay $700 and now we pay $1,000. After I settle myself [in Columbus], my mom and my sister will also move with me.

CP: What was the response like after the piece was published?

JRC: I would say mild ignorance. Most people don’t know about this. Some people said, “Be careful, you might get deported.” I was like, “That’s not really that funny.” A lot of people said, “I’m really happy you’re telling your story.” A lot of people from my high school said they were happy. I didn't really get any backlash from it.

CP: Any thoughts on H. 4435, the S.C. Dreamers Act?

JRC: I did not have any knowledge of this. I’m bound for Ohio right now, and I have to wait another year to go to school [in order to meet Ohio's in-state residency requirements]. Hopefully it goes well for those who are fighting and waiting patiently.

click to enlarge Alex Avila wants to use his Trident degree to open a Mexican restaurant - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Alex Avila wants to use his Trident degree to open a Mexican restaurant

Alex Avila

Age: 23
Works at: A landscaping company, also a full-time student
Lives in: Ladson, S.C.

CP: When we left you, you were hoping to graduate from culinary school at Trident Tech with hopes of opening up your own Mexican place in the future. What are you up to now?

AA: I graduate in May. I just hope to work full time, save up, and I was thinking of starting up a catering company, like Mexican and American cuisine, and just save up from there. I started talking with a friend of mine and she actually said she would help me out as well. I’m taking an externship during the summer; I’m trying to figure that out. I’m pretty much done [with school]. I just got three classes left. My long-term plan is still opening up a restaurant some day.

AA: We were hoping [for] something that we were promised in the beginning, a road to citizenship and everything. Donald Trump says one thing, and does another thing. He also says we have "nothing to worry about" in the beginning then decided to end DACA, so I don’t know what to expect right now. This whole shutdown proves that even though [Republicans] have the majority in the House and everything, they still can’t work things out.

CP: When did you renew?

AA: Mine actually was going to expire at the end of this month, so I was able to renew before the cut-off which was last October, and I got my new work permit in the following month-and-a-half, so I’m good until the end of 2019.

CP: Have your plans changed from what you told us in the fall?

AA: Nothing really changed. I still have the same plans and goals, but the only thing that’s changed is that I'm looking to more friendly states open to DACA recipients to attend schools and be able to get financial aid. In California, they protect the Dreamers. [California is] in my head as, like, an emergency plan in case anything happens here, especially with last year how law enforcement started teaming up with ICE and cracking down on immigrants in certain states like in Texas. Other than that, I still have the same plans and goals.

CP: What was the response like after the piece was published?

AA: Actually, I was surprised so many people read the newspaper still! Especially all the chefs downtown and teachers at Trident. They all sympathized with me, not just with me but the Dreamers and DACA recipients. Surprisingly, a lot of people didn’t know that we didn’t get any help from the government, they thought we got all this free money. We don’t get any financial aid, and people thought we did. It kind of opened their eyes to see that it’s worse than they thought.

CP: Thoughts on the S.C. Dreamers Act?

AA: One of the first people to tell me about it was my parents, they actually saw it in the news. It would help DACA recipients who weren’t able to attend school in the first place. I don’t know if I'd be able to go directly after I graduate [culinary school], but I’d try to push myself to get a bachelor’s or a different degree. I was thinking about a business degree, so I would definitely take advantage of that.

Interviews were conducted on Jan. 25 and Jan. 26. Responses have been edited for space.



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