Johnny Rivera-Garcia nervously walked through the historic College of Charleston campus clutching a hand-written letter. Beneath majestic live oaks and centuries-old buildings, he tried to imagine what it would be like to call this place his home for the next four years. He walked past the admissions office that had sent him his letter of acceptance, then turned the corner onto Glebe Street, all too aware of his fate. The truth was Rivera-Garcia wouldn’t be one of the thousands of incoming freshman at CofC this year due to one fact that sets him apart from many of his peers: Rivera-Garcia arrived in America 17 years ago as an undocumented immigrant.
Rivera-Garcia is one of over 800,000 ‘Dreamers,’ undocumented immigrants living in the United States who received protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Under the Obama-era program, undocumented immigrants who arrived in America before they were 15 are allowed to live, work, and go to school without fear of being deported. On Sept. 5, however, the Trump Administration announced a six-month “wind-down” of DACA with the program permanently ending on March 5, 2018. This decision came after 10 state attorney-generals, including South Carolina attorney-general Alan Wilson, threatened to sue the Trump administration if DACA was not rescinded by Sept. 5.
In the days after the Trump Administration announced this wind-down, thousands of DACA recipients and their supporters took to the streets to protest and rally in support of the program. Diana Brito, a DACA recipient clad in a red, white, and blue headband, spoke at a rally in North Charleston. “I really just want an education, a chance to help everyone, a chance to be a better person in every aspect of my life,” she told the assembled audience.
Her story is much like Rivera-Garcia and other local DACA recipients. Alex Avila, a student at Trident Tech, arrived in the United States when he was two. In Mexico City, his father was a math teacher struggling to get by.
“He had heard stories about people who had died coming here and who had gotten caught by the cartels — that’s worse than dying,” Avila says. Despite these risks, his parents decided a future in America was worth it. “If you go, we all go,” his mother told his father. Avila was too young to remember crossing the border on foot with his parents. “Compared to the other kids, I was told I was well-behaved,” Avila says. “It wasn’t a fun thing. Other kids were miserable.” From the border, Avila’s family travelled the country in search of work. In Florida, his father worked in the fields. They then moved to Georgia and eventually settled in Charleston around 1999 where his father did landscaping and construction. As an agricultural worker and then as a landscaper, his father made more money than he did in Mexico as a math teacher.
A memo circulating from the Trump administration urged DACA recipients to use the next six months to “prepare for and arrange their departure from the United States.” For many of these Dreamers, this means leaving the only home they have ever known. Most have no memory of the countries they left. If they return to the regions of Mexico they fled as children, Avila, Rivera-Garcia, and Brito would be confronted by regions rife with poverty and crime.
“There’s no guarantee we’ll be safe from the criminals or the cartels,” says Avila. During the period the three crossed into America, their Mexican states of Veracruz, Oaxaca, and Guerrero respectively were among the largest sources of drug production in Mexico and home to numerous cartels. Over half of the population in each of these three states live in poverty, earning less than $113 per month. In Oaxaca and Guerrero, almost one-third of the population lives in extreme poverty, earning less than $60 per month.
“The reason people come here undocumented is to better their life because they know they have nothing back home, they’re dirt poor. We come here undocumented because we have nothing,” says Rivera-Garcia.
Brito and Rivera-Garcia both crossed the border in cars months before 9/11 redefined the term “border security.” Brito crossed with her grandparents when she was five using the ID of an American cousin her age. She then travelled to South Carolina where her grandparents introduced her to her parents for the first time.
“They told me these were my parents. I don’t look a lot like them, so when I got here I looked at them and was like, ‘Really? You think so?'” Her parents began their lives in America in Georgia, where they worked in the fields during the day and in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant at night. They eventually made their way to Charleston, where they transitioned to construction work.
Rivera-Garcia’s parents also preceded him, working in a Denny’s kitchen so they could pay the coyotes — human traffickers —to smuggle him and his grandmother across the border. The price of crossing was $1,200 for each of them.
Neither Rivera-Garcia nor Brito could comprehend at the time what that crossing would mean for their lives. For much of the next two decades, their families lived in the shadows until an executive order by President Obama in 2012 catapulted them out of the dark and gave them a shot at their dreams.
Avila graduated from Stratford High School in Goose Creek in 2012, a year before DACA went into effect. South Carolina is one of two states that currently ban undocumented immigrants from attending college.
“When I graduated, I was one of the few that wasn’t able to go to college right away. I honestly felt miserable,” Avila says. By that fall his friends were gone, and he was still in Goose Creek “working, working, working” under the table in landscaping. It was the first time since he started kindergarten that he wasn’t going back to school. “You’re taught you go to college, you get an education, you get a good job to be successful.” Avila says. “To me it was like, how am I going to be successful?”
“I couldn’t do anything. … I couldn’t get a car. I have a car now. I didn’t have any credit. It was impossible to do anything without social security. It was just really, really hard,” he says.
Brito grew up and attended school in the Hilton Head area. Before DACA, life could be defined in one word: uncertainty. “I was always a good student in high school but I was never an excellent student because I knew no matter how good of a student I was, I wasn’t going to be able to go to college or achieve my dreams or goals here. I don’t know what I would have done without DACA.”
Everything changed when Obama signed the executive order authorizing DACA in 2012.
“It was a weight off of our shoulders,” Avila says. “Now we were able to pursue our careers that we wanted to do.” But although DACA finally granted them a place in American society, it didn’t mean the path to achieving their dreams would be easy. Under DACA, South Carolina students are denied in-state tuition and are ineligible for any federal or state financial aid or loans, putting the costs of anything but a technical university out of reach for many DACA recipients.
Undeterred, Brito graduated from the Culinary Institute of Charleston with an associates program through Trident Tech. One day she’d like to attend College of Charleston to study biology, and then earn a Masters in Dietetics at the Medical University of South Carolina. She wants to help low-income families learn how to eat healthier. But even under DACA protections, the path to earning that higher education is littered with roadblocks.
Rivera-Garcia knows this all too well. He was in Washington D.C. on a senior year class field trip this spring when he received his acceptance to the College of Charleston. He was eating breakfast at the hotel with his friend Olivia when his phone buzzed. His hands shook as he opened an email from the Admissions Office at the CofC. His eyes focused on one word: Congratulations. Olivia shrieked. They had a plan to go to the College of Charleston together. It was all coming together.
Rivera-Garcia is a future world-traveler and humanitarian. His dream is to work for the United Nations. Graduating from Fort Dorchester High School in 2017, he speaks four languages. “I really want to do humanitarian work and go overseas, to go and help young kids and young adults. I know that people are fighting for my rights, so I would like to fight for other people’s rights.” Entering CofC would be the first step in this lifelong goal, but his status with Trump’s move to end DACA has thrown a wrench in his plans and put his dream on hold.
After Rivera-Garcia realized he wouldn’t be able to afford CofC’s out-of-state tuition without any sort of financial aid, in a last-ditch effort, he wrote a letter for help to the director of the International Studies program he desperately wanted to attend and handed it to him in person on-campus. The response? No help was available. Devastated, he replied to his acceptance email from the College of Charleston admissions office.
“Sorry,” he said, “I will not be able to attend.”
Today Rivera-Garcia works at the H&M outlet in North Charleston. He’s trying to save up money to attend school, but if DACA ends with no replacement legislation by March 5, Rivera-Garcia and the other Dreamers will once again be in limbo. Although Rivera-Garcia renewed his DACA status for two years last week (the cut-off date is this Friday), because South Carolina is one of the few states that doesn’t allow undocumented students to attend public universities, it may not matter how much money he saves — his door to the College of Charleston could be closed for good. But his dream of becoming an aid worker and humanitarian is deferred, not over. Rivera-Garcia is thinking about moving out west, to states like Washington and California where undocumented immigrants can pay in-state tuition.
As for Avila, he’s currently in the Culinary Institute of Charleston program at Trident Tech. He bemoans the lack of authentic upscale Mexican restaurants on the peninsula and hopes to open his own restaurant and catering business after he graduates. Or at least he did.
When Trump announced his end to DACA Avila wasn’t surprised given the President’s rhetoric during the election.
“I expected it,” Avila says. “I wanted it not to be true, but I was preparing myself for the worst.” He saw the news on Facebook during class. “Usually in class, I’m more laid-back and joke around. That day I was nerve-wracked, I was distracted. My mind was somewhere else. The weight that got taken off my back in 2012 was back on my shoulders.”
Brito was equally crestfallen when she heard the news on the television in her work breakroom at lunch. “My stomach was in a knot,” she says. “I didn’t really eat that day. I felt as if my dreams were being taken away.”
Brito and Avila are first-generation college students, and Rivera-Garcia hopes to be one. From agricultural worker, Chinese-kitchen cook, and Denny’s dishwasher to college graduate, their families have achieved a meteoric rise in one generation, the kind of upward mobility we used to call the American Dream. Today, faith in the American Dream is at an all-time low among millennials — almost half believe that it is dead. However, despite adversity, Hispanics are among the outliers. According to the Atlantic Media/Pearson Opportunity Poll, Hispanic millennials still believe in the American Dream.
But the fates of these three Dreamers are now in the hands of Congress. Congress has six months to pass legislation protecting Dreamers, a feat that it has failed to achieve despite numerous attempts in the past 16 years. In July, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Il) re-introduced the DREAM Act, which would grant DACA recipients legal permanent residence and a path to citizenship. In the next six months, the lives of Avila, Rivera-Garcia, and Brito and hundreds of thousands of others like them hang in the balance.
“These kids are not taking jobs from American citizens, they’re part of our country,” Senator Graham (R-S.C.) told NBC’s Today Show on Sept. 6th.
That same day the President of the College of Charleston, Glenn McConnell, released a statement noting that DACA recipients deserve to be here, and deserve the opportunity to “cross the majestic Cistern stage, with a College of Charleston diploma in hand.”
This goodwill may not matter. If no replacement legislation is passed, DACA recipients will return to being undocumented and the College of Charleston and Trident Technical College will have to abide by state laws and not accept them.
But no matter what happens, these Dreamers all make it clear they will not go back into the shadows.
As Diana Brito told those assembled at North Charleston City Hall on Sept. 5, “Just know that I won’t let you down. I will become that American citizen one day — God willing — that is going to help this country be great.”