More than 3,400 previously undocumented immigrants have been granted legal status in South Carolina in the past year under a controversial program created by President Barack Obama that is now a focus of immigration debate in Congress, records show.
More than 500,000 immigrants who came to the country illegally as children have so far been approved for the Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals program, according to records of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reviewed by GreenvilleOnline.com.
The program allows participants to get job permits, Social Security credentials, driver’s licenses and admission to public universities.
Republicans in the U.S. House, which have turned their noses up at a Senate-passed immigration reform bill, have voiced mixed feelings about the program.
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But some are now talking about supporting a stand-alone bill that would mimic the Dream Act legislation that failed in the Senate in 2010 offering a path to citizenship for those brought to the country illegally as children.
U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, a Republican and former prosecutor whose district encompasses Greenville and Spartanburg counties, said in an interview that he doesn’t like how the president created DACA but does feel like South Carolinians would support giving the children a chance.
The program, launched last year with an executive order by the president, postpones deportation proceedings against participants for two years, with a renewal option at the end of that period for another two years.
Those approved are granted federal work permits, which in turn allow them to get Social Security credentials, jobs, driver’s licenses and admission to public universities.
To be in the program, applicants must be no older than 30, have arrived in the country prior to age 16, be able to show a continuous presence in the nation since and have no convictions for a felony or serious misdemeanor. They must also be high school graduates, or have a high school equivalency certificate or have been honorably discharged from the military.
As of July, records show 537,662 immigrants have been approved for the program, while 19,750 have been rejected. In South Carolina, according to the records, 3,438 have been approved.
“I think this country has always been about new arrivals contributing to the greater good,” said Allen Ladd, a Greenville immigration lawyer who has helped immigrants apply for DACA. “And I believe, given a chance, that’s what all these folks will do.”
The program has its critics, among them those who believe the president circumvented the law by enacting the program.
“Regardless of where you stand on the issue of immigration, I think most Americans would agree that the president has a constitutional obligation to uphold the law. President Obama’s executive orders regarding immigration policy and a number of other issues are blatantly unconstitutional and will most likely be struck down in court very soon,” U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, another Upstate Republican, told GreenvilleOnline.com.
“When the president plays games to try to get around the law, he hurts the public’s trust and makes it more difficult to get things done in Washington. If the president can unilaterally rewrite ObamaCare or pick and choose which immigration laws to enforce, how do we know that he wouldn’t do the same thing with a comprehensive immigration bill? That’s a part of the reason why I will not support what the Senate’s done on immigration.”
Some critics said the program is more about politics than immigration.
State senators Tom Corbin of Travelers Rest and Lee Bright of Spartanburg said they believe the program is aimed at bolstering Democratic voting blocs.
Sen. Larry Martin, a Pickens Republican, said Obama’s action reflects the inability of Congress to address the problem of what to do with those who came into the country illegally because of their parents.
“What do you do in the alternative? These are children who came here, and we don’t need to raise a generation of indigents because we refuse to let them assimilate into our society and be educated,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, a Columbia Democrat, says he supports the program and the Dream Act provision in the Senate bill.
Clyburn said he would like to see a Dream Act provision in any final bill sent to the president.
Tammy Besherse, an attorney with the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center in Columbia, who has talked to high school students about the program, said most of those she has dealt with have been accepted into the program without any problem.
“Most of them were seniors in high school who have been here since they were two or three years old and had never been in any trouble and could easily prove they had been here the entire period because they had all their school records,” she said. “We did not come across any that we thought could not meet the rules.”
Ladd said his firm’s clients have included two valedictorians and some students who have been offered scholarships. One student, he said, did well in his studies at a university in the state while his brother attended medical school in another state.
He said his DACA clients come mostly from Mexico, while others come from Latin America and India.
“To me, deporting them would be ghastly, about in line with deporting the U.S.-born children of the Japanese parents who were interned in World War II,” he said.
If Congress doesn’t include a provision addressing the children of immigrants in the legislation it passes on immigration, those in the DACA program could still renew their legal status in two years, provided they don’t get in criminal trouble or leave the country without permission. But the program could still be canceled by Congress or by the next president, officials say.