Maria Garcia Riopedre remembers life in the dark – and does not want to go back.
When friends at Bluffton High School were all getting their beginners’ driving permits and first cars, she told them her parents would not let her get a license until she was older.
When one invited her to a cruise, Garcia Riopedre made up another excuse: She was afraid of water and boats.
When she thought about college, or about her dreams of becoming a photographer or magazine designer, the honors student knew her more realistic options were to work under the table – maybe as a housekeeper – or return to Mexico alone.
The reality was Garcia Riopedre was an undocumented immigrant, brought to the United States illegally as a 3 year old by her mother. Raised in the Lowcountry, she hoped for a future here but had lingering doubts about what opportunities might be available.
That changed in 2012, when then-President Barack Obama signed an executive order providing legal protection to children illegally brought into the country by their parents. Garcia Riopedre applied for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program as soon as she could.
“It’s probably the best thing that has ever happened to me,” said Garcia Riopedre, now a 20-year-old junior studying visual communications at the University of South Carolina. “It’s definitely a 180 to everything I ever had. It opened up a lot of doors to me, and it’s something I never wanted to give up.”
But now, with Republican President Donald Trump, the future again is uncertain for Garcia Riopedre and thousands of other so-called “Dreamers” in South Carolina.
Trump’s political rise scared many S.C. Hispanics, who bristled at his characterizations of illegal Mexican immigrants and his promises to crack down on immigration.
Those fears have intensified since last month, when Trump signed executive orders calling for ramped up deportations and the construction of a border wall with Mexico.
DACA recipients – and their parents – worry Trump might next follow through on his campaign promise to reverse DACA, which he labeled “illegal amnesty” before the election.
Still, they have hope.
Trump has not yet reversed the order or said what he would do with Dreamers like Garcia Riopedre – though he says he will reveal a plan soon.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca, has reintroduced a proposal to offer Dreamers continued protection while Congress drafts a permanent immigration solution.
A sense of purpose
Since 2012, more than 750,000 young, undocumented immigrants across the country, including nearly 6,300 in South Carolina, have received two-year work permits and relief from the threat of deportation through DACA.
About three-quarters of those Dreamers are from Mexico. Most of the rest are from other Central and South American countries.
The legal protection has been a godsend for many – giving them a chance to get driver’s licenses, open bank accounts, work full-time jobs and go to college.
It provided Garcia Riopedre a path to USC, though she and the nine other DACA recipients at the state’s flagship university must pay costly out-of-state tuition and are barred by state law from receiving government scholarships or financial aid.
Now, Garcia Riopedre teaches Latin dance at a student club on campus, practices photography and hopes to one day work at Seventeen Magazine.
For others, DACA has provided a sense of purpose.
Before DACA, Erick Velazquez, an 18-year-old senior at Airport High School who has lived in Columbia 13 years, said he had no assurances of a future in United States and, thus, had little motivation to succeed in school and other parts of his life.
Now, Velazquez says he is pulling his grades up, working part-time at Chick-fil-A and staying involved with school sports and a church group.
”My mindset has been clear and focused on my future, and what I’m going to do later on in life,” said Velazquez, who wants to join the National Guard and go to trade school. “It has changed who I am as a person and what I’m going to do with my life.”
The new status also helps him get health insurance – providing for his first-ever trips to the dentist and eye doctor.
“I’ve always wanted to go to the dentist,” Velazquez said. “I don’t understand why people hate it. I was able to get glasses as well.”
‘Now you’re going to ... rip away their opportunity?’
But DACA recipients do not know how much longer their protections will last.
Some are living day to day, fearful of dreaming up a long-term plan only to have it shattered.
Trump’s election in November set off a firestorm of fear, rumors and misinformation within the local Hispanic community, said Ivan Segura, an officer with the S.C. Hispanic Leadership Council.
Concerns about deportation have spread like wildfire on Facebook, said Segura, who has encouraged Hispanics to check out the rumors with community leaders before sharing them further.
Segura said one mother called him Nov. 9, the day after Trump was elected, asking whether it was safe to send her children to school. She said she had heard officials would be rounding up students for deportation.
“The deportation panic, that’s what most people are concerned about,” Segura said. “They have fear that, at some point, immigration is going to come into their homes, their churches, their schools and start picking people up. It’s sad to hear that from a community in that kind of despair or anxiety.”
Segura said Hispanics primarily come to the United States to provide a better life for their children. At recent community meetings, he said, parents of DACA recipients often have asked what Trump’s policies will mean for their kids.
“The fear they have is: ‘I came over here. I worked for so many years and paid my taxes. We stayed out of trouble. ... Now you’re going to come and rip away their opportunity?’ ” Segura said.
Some DACA recipients do not know what they would do without legal protection.
“Our lives as immigrants always depend on that person, the president that comes in,” Velazquez said.
Garcia Riopedre’s protections are up for renewal in December – halfway through her senior year at USC.
She started seriously worrying about DACA’s future as Obama’s term wound to a close. She said her heart dropped when she learned of Trump’s promise to end the program.
Without those protections, she says, she would be forced out of college one semester short of graduation.
“All of a sudden, I may not be able to finish,” Garcia Riopedre said. “It’s a really big disappointment to me, and it’s a really big disappointment to my parents because I know they’ve been working really hard for me to be able to live here.”
‘Back into the darkness’
It is not guaranteed that Trump will eliminate DACA. More than two weeks after his inauguration, he has not taken action on the issue.
That is a relief to some Hispanics but a thorn in the side of some rule-of-law conservatives. They note undocumented immigrants broke the law to get here and expect Trump to make good on his promises.
Trump and GOP leaders in Congress have said they are working on a plan to address Dreamers. Last month, Trump said he would reveal a proposal within a matter of weeks. Dreamers should not be worried, Trump said, citing his “big heart.”
But efforts already are underway to extend the protections even if DACA is ended.
Last month, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca, reintroduced the Bridge Act, which would protect DACA recipients and eligible applicants from deportation for three years while Congress works on a permanent immigration solution.
If passed, that law would be stronger than DACA, since the president can repeal DACA at any time without the OK of Congress.
“It’s my firm belief most Americans want to fix a broken immigration system in a humane manner,” Graham said in a press release.
Graham said he thinks Obama’s executive order that created DACA was unconstitutional.
“However, I do not believe we should pull the rug out and push these young men and women – who came out of the shadows and registered with the federal government – back into the darkness.”
The Bridge Act, introduced with bipartisan support in the Senate late last year, has strong support from some Dreamers. Many hope to become U.S. citizens one day.
If it passes, Garcia Riopedre might spend more time drawing up her long-term dreams.
“I haven’t even been able to think that far just yet,” she said. “I did have goals. But, then, since this whole thing has happened, I’ve been trying to focus on December, just December.”