Maria Garcia Riopedre is living the American Dream.
The 21-year-old University of South Carolina student is on course to graduate next spring and plans to open a cat cafe in West Columbia with her boyfriend.
Until earlier this month, she wasn’t sure any of that would be possible.
Because she grew up in Bluffton but was born in Mexico, Garcia was only able to work and go to school because of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – the federal program for young, undocumented immigrants that President Donald Trump has pledged to terminate by March if Congress fails to act.
This month, she got a two-year extension on her DACA status, ensuring she can stay in the country for a while longer.
But if the program ends, she and 6,400 other undocumented S.C. DACA recipients like her will lose their protections from deportation unless they can find another way to gain legal status, like a long-term work visa.
And securing one is no certainty, Garcia said.
“We’ve been waiting to hear back (on her visa application) for a few years,” she said. “They usually only give out a certain number a year.”
A loss for SC’s economy
If Garcia and other DACA recipients are deported, they won’t be the only S.C. residents who will take a hit.
South Carolina’s economy also could take a big hit.
A study by the University of Southern California and the Center for American Progress estimates recipients of DACA and the DACA-eligible population – had a $262.7 million impact on South Carolina’s economy.
In South Carolina, an estimated 9,100 S.C. residents are eligible for the program. That’s millions of dollars that could disappear if the program is shut down.
DACA allows recipients to work, including in local restaurants.
“Consumers do not understand that the immigrant population is the backbone of the food industry, whether it’s the farm industry, the wine business or the construction that builds restaurants and grocery stores,” said Sarah Simmons, owner of the former Rise gourmet shop in Five Points.
Simmons said she has frequently worked with immigrants in her New York restaurant Birds and Bubbles. It’s hard enough to fill all the positions restaurants need, she argues, for businesses to lose the competent employees they do have.
“People are not prepared to pay the prices we would have if you do away with immigrants in these jobs,” Simmons said.
Waiting and working
Anayeli Rojas, 18, is working at Pizza Hut on Fort Jackson since finishing high school, and hopes to enter South Carolina’s Criminal Justice Academy. She says she is a regular shopper at Columbiana Mall and frequents downtown restaurants.
Rojas managed to get a two-year extension on her DACA status by Oct. 5, the last such opportunity before the expected end of the program. But before it was clear what the Trump administration planned to do with DACA, Rojas says she was “freaking out” about whether her legal status would just disappear one day.
“It’s not fair, because I’m working, and there are other people in this country who aren’t,” she said.
She wasn’t the only one under stress. The day Trump announced his decision to wind down DACA was the same day Garcia was scheduled to go into the immigration office in Charleston.
“I had my boyfriend call to make sure I should still come in,” Garcia said. “I was nervous the whole way to Charleston, thinking I was going to run into ICE agents.”
Besides joining the workforce and shopping, both DACA recipients want to give back to their community. Rojas wants to turn a passion for cars into organizing a local automobile club that could raise money for causes.
Garcia is a member of USC’s Kappa Delta Chi sorority, which raised $4,000 this year to assist other DACA recipients.
Now the visual communications major has at least a temporary reprieve while she hopes to get a more permanent work visa, but she worries for those whose statuses will expire next year, after the program ends.
“I was fortunate enough to get it,” she said. “Not everyone was.”
HOW MUCH WILL SC LOSE WITHOUT DACA?
By congressional district
$61.6m in the 4th District
$50.5m in the 1st District
$40.6m in the 2nd District
$35.9m in the 5th District
$35.7m in the 7th District
$24.4m in the 6th District
$14m in the 3rd District