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THE END OF THE DACA PROGRAM WILL AFFECT THE LOWCOUNTRY

How much difference does a 3-by-2-inch card make? For Reynaldo Gonzalez of Hardeeville and his younger siblings, it made all the difference in the world.

After their mother’s death in January, Gonzalez, 23, became the sole provider for his sisters, 19-year-old Vanessa, Lizbeth, 15, and his 8-year-old brother, Alex. The card that helped him take care of them up until now is his work authorization, obtained through the federal program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

“DACA allowed me to get a steady job,” Gonzalez said. “Before I got it I worked odd jobs helping whoever I could. There were a lot of days when I didn’t have work.”

In September, the Trump administration ended DACA, which was created by the Obama administration through an executive order. The program granted legal protections to roughly 800,000 people, known as "DREAMers” after the proposed DREAM Act bill, who entered the country illegally as children. DACA will officially end March 5, 2018, and no new applications for the program are being considered.

Current two-year permits will remain in effect until they expire, "unless terminated or revoked" before then, according to a fact sheet on the Department of Homeland Security website.

Gonzalez was brought to the United States from Mexico when he was a baby and enrolled in the DACA program when he was 19. His siblings were born in the U.S., so they’re all U.S. citizens. Mixed-status families —where some members have legal standing and others are undocumented immigrants—are common. In Gonzalez’s case, his siblings also relied on the DACA program because it allowed him bring in a steady income for the family. His sister Vanessa was able to focus on her studies instead leaving school to get a job, and she’s now at Clemson a full scholarship.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR DREAMERS?

DACA allowed individuals who were brought to the U.S. as children or teens before mid-2007 to apply for protection from deportation and work permits if they met certain requirements. To be eligible, applicants had to be under the age of 16 upon entering the country; lived continuously in the U.S. since mid-2007; be enrolled in high school or college, already have a diploma or degree, have a GED certificate or be an honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. military; and have no felony criminal convictions or significant misdemeanor convictions, or otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.

Karen MillanThe program was created because “these kids didn’t have any choice. They were brought here by their parents,” said Eric Esquivel, co-chairman of the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition and owner of La Isla magazine on Hilton Head Island. “They don’t remember their home countries, they don’t know anybody there, and a lot of them don’t even speak Spanish.”

DACA did not provide a path to citizenship. Instead, it granted a two-year work permit and deferral from possibly being removed from the U.S. The permits were eligible for renewal. There are 6,400 DACA recipients in South Carolina.

Because they were educated in the U.S., many DACA recipients have skills that local employers need. Gonzalez started at Ocean Woods Landscaping in Okatie by mowing lawns and cutting bushes. But his boss noticed his perfect English and customer service skills and recently promoted Gonzalez to accounts manager.

Unlike many DACA recipients, Gonzalez won’t personally be affected when the program ends. He recently married a U.S. citizen and through his tie to her received legal U.S. residency status — which also allows him to speak out about immigration laws without fear.

But the effects of the DACA repeal aren’t just felt in the Lowcountry. In Washington, D.C., members of Congress are facing increasing pressure to find a solution. Two bipartisan bills that could grant legal status or create a pathway to citizenship for those who were eligible for DACA have been introduced, but they face an uphill battle because they are mired in the larger political debate about immigration reform, including funding for a border wall.

On a recent visit to Hilton Head Island Rep. Mark Sandford met with several DACA recipients and Eric Esquivel. The congressman listened respectfully to their stories but was non-committal about his stance on the DREAMers.

“We have to start somewhere on immigration reform,” he said.

DACA IN SOUTH CAROLINA

There are 6,400 DACA recipients in South Carolina.

Esquivel hopes that if Congress finds a solution for these young people, it will be better than DACA, which allowed states considerable discretion in how they dealt with program participants. In South Carolina colleges and universities, DACA recipients are treated differently than other students. Most consider DACA recipients international students, so they pay higher tuition than other students and aren’t eligible for financial aid or most scholarships.

Jose Gaytan, 18, learned this the hard way. Because staff at public schools aren’t allowed to ask students about their immigration status, guidance counselors at Hilton Head High didn’t realize the star football player was undocumented and in the DACA program. After scouts for Limestone College saw him play, Gaytan was offered a full scholarship—free tuition and room and board. He arrived at football training camp last August excited to start his higher education and play for the Limestone College Saints.

Almost immediately, he received a bill from the school for thousands of dollars, which he and his family couldn’t pay. The coach apologized but said his hands were tied. “They aren’t allowed to give scholarship money to international students,” Gaytan said. “I had to come home.”

These days, Gaytan is working construction and attending Technical College of the Lowcountry. He hopes leaders in Washington will pass legislation that will let him get back on the football field next fall.

DACA recipients who successfully study to be doctors, welders, cosmetologists and other professionals requiring licenses can’t use these certifications in the Palmetto State. Bluffton High graduate and DACA recipient Karen Millan would like to train to be a nail tech, but she wouldn’t be able to register her license in South Carolina. This frustrates her becuase she feels completely American. “I was brought to this country when I was three months old. I don’t know what Mexico is,” she said.

BUSINESS BLUES

In addition to program participants and their families, local businesses also will be affected if Congress isn’t able to find a solution that allows DACA recipients to remain in the U.S. and work here. The Center for American Progress estimates DACA has contributed $262 million to South Carolina’s economy since the program began.

hosegAttorney Jose Fuentes of Jenkins, Esquivel & Fuentes P.A. on Hilton Head has employed several DACA recipients since the program began. About 60 percent of the firm’s clients are Spanishspeakers, and Fuentes said it will be hard to fully staff the office if DACA isn’t replaced with a similar program.

“It would be very challenging to find someone with sufficient education and computer skills, on top of being bilingual,” Fuentes said. “Any business that isn’t able to handle bilingual clients is just missing out.”

DACA FACTS

  1. There are more than 43 million immigrants in the U.S., according to the Migration Policy Institute.
  2. About 11 million are undocumented immigrants.
  3. The Migration Policy Institute said in 2016 that about 1.9 million people were eligible for DACA.
  4. About 788,000 have had their requests for DACA status accepted, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
  5. In order to apply for DACA, immigrants had to be younger than 31 on June 15, 2012 and have come to the U.S. when they were younger than 16.