Erika Hernandez was a model student at Greenville High School, a high-achiever with a 4.3 grade-point average, almost perfect attendance and membership in two honor societies.
She took a two-year course in cosmetology during high school at the Donaldson Career Center and passed it with flying colors. In 2016, she aced two tests required for her state cosmetology license.
A month later, she got an official notice in the mail: License denied.
Hernandez's dream — to be a cosmetologist and later a nurse — was shattered by a bureaucratic form letter.
"It was terrible," Hernandez said, her voice wavering. "After two years of study and all that money..."
Hernandez, 20, is one of more than 780,000 immigrants nationwide, and 7,061 in South Carolina, known as Dreamers — young people who came to the U.S. at an early age with their undocumented parents.
In 2012, then-President Barack Obama gave Dreamers some legal protections under a program called DACA: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
DACA students can get a Social Security number that allows them to work, pay taxes and go to college. They also can get a driver's license.
But in South Carolina, DACA students are ineligible for dozens of occupational licenses.
Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant says the state is right to deny occupational licenses to DACA students, arguing that native-born South Carolinians should not have to compete with DACA students for licenses and jobs.
The Greenville News sought Gov. Henry McMaster's position on the DACA issue, but McMaster did not respond to repeated requests.
Bryant also defends the state's policy of charging out-of-state tuition to DACA students.
"The students were brought here by their parents, but the students were brought here illegally, which isn't quite fair to them," Bryant said. "But when we think about in-state tuition, which is subsidized by the South Carolina taxpayers, it's not quite fair to the taxpayer that they (DACA students) would receive in-state tuition, so I support the notion that out-of-state tuition is appropriate."
However, Julio Hernandez, Clemson University's associate director of Hispanic Outreach, noted that DACA students and even undocumented immigrants pay taxes.
"In South Carolina, undocumented immigrants pay $67 million in state and local taxes," Hernandez said, quoting figures from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.
“These are families who pay taxes and don’t have access to benefits," Hernandez said.
James Campbell, a Spanish teacher at Carolina High School who works with a number of immigrant students, said DACA students just want equal access to state scholarships and the American Dream. “I don’t think any of our students are asking for handouts," Campbell said. "They’re asking for fair access to scholarships. They’re attending school, they’re advancing to the top of their class. They’re working for it.”
DACA immigrants in South Carolina cannot become licensed nurses, dental hygienists, optometrists, physical therapists, social workers, marriage counselors, veterinary technicians, plumbers, emergency medial technicians, real estate appraisers or cosmetologists, to name just a few of the more than 40 careers requiring state licenses or other credentials.
Hernandez, who came to the U.S. at age 6 and is fluent in both English and Spanish, intended to work in cosmetology to earn money for college to study nursing — at a time when bilingual nurses are in high demand.
Instead of styling hair for high school proms and studying how to care for the sick, however, Hernandez now spends her time working at her family's food truck.
Out-of-state tuition is often double the cost of in-state tuition, and DACA students cannot receive state or federal college scholarships or grants. They can't participate in work study programs.
“They can potentially fill employment gaps in the state, but if we require them to pay out-of-state tuition and they do not have scholarships, it’s really an insurmountable barrier we’re creating for them," said Adela Mendoza, executive director of the South Carolina Hispanic Alliance.
Hernandez, facing prohibitively expensive tuition and no prospect of getting a cosmetologist's or nurse's license, has put her ambitions on indefinite hold.
"It would be a waste of time and money to pursue a career now," Hernandez said.
Wanting to contribute
Other DACA students get the education they need in South Carolina and move to other states where young, energetic, high-skilled immigrants are welcomed with open arms — and often an occupational license.
States such as California, New York and Nebraska offer all occupational licenses to DACA students while other states, including Florida and Nevada, allow DACA students to obtain some licenses, according to Tanya Broder, senior attorney with the National Immigration Law Center.
South Carolina's laws and policies make the state less competitive in the drive to attract and keep skilled workers, Mendoza said.
Maria Calderon,17, graduated from Greenville High School in 2017 where she also studied cosmetology for two years.
Calderon is now in Los Angeles, planning to continue her cosmetology studies and obtain her cosmetology license there.
Some DACA students may hope to earn an occupational license in another state and then transfer it to South Carolina. But an out-of-state license would not allow a DACA student to receive an S.C. occupational license, according to the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
"It's really hurting the state," said "Will McCorkle, an activist and Clemson graduate sociology student who has researched the plight of DACA students. "Why are we allowing all these students to leave the state and not allowing them to do jobs that are going to help grow the state? From a self-centered perspective, it doesn't make a lot of sense."
Some elected officials, such as South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, want to end the protections that DACA students now enjoy.
On June 29, Wilson joined eight other state attorneys general and Idaho Gov. Butch Otter in calling on the Trump administration to phase out the DACA program, calling DACA immigrants "unlawfully present aliens."
Under current law, DACA students must renew their work permits and other documents every year at a cost of $495.
If the program were to be phased out, as Wilson urges, and DACA students were to return to undocumented status, they could not even enroll in college, much less earn a degree and occupational license. South Carolina is one of only two states in the nation — the other is Alabama — that does not allow colleges to admit undocumented immigrants, according to the National Immigration Law Center.
Wilson and anti-immigration groups argue that Obama lacked the authority to confer the protections conferred by DACA.
"It's an unconstitutional usurpation of legislative prerogatives," said Steven Camarota with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies. "You can't say, 'I'm not going to enforce the law on all of these people, give out work permits, Social Security numbers, identity documents.' It would be like the police announcing, 'We're just not going to enforce the law against shoplifting and graffiti. If you get caught, we're going to let you go.'"
President Trump, as a candidate in 2016, promised to "terminate immediately" the DACA program. Because Obama's executive order lacked congressional approval, Trump called it an act of executive "amnesty" that "defied federal law and the Constitution."
As president, however, Trump has allowed DACA work permits to continue to be issued, a fact which motivated the recent letter by the 10 state attorneys general.
“Trump did say during the campaign that it was unconstitutional and he would end the (DACA) program, but he hasn’t it," Camarota said. "It would seem to be direct violation of a campaign promise and it obviously is beginning to grate on a lot of his supporters.”
Local schools' response
Greenville Technical College has about 35 DACA students, said Matteel Jones, vice president for student services.
That number, however, could rise. The South Carolina Hispanic Alliance said that as many as 500 DACA students live in the Upstate.
Jones at Greenville Tech and Hernandez at Clemson make sure that DACA students understand limitations on state licensing.
"If a student says, 'I want to be a nurse,' I'd have to say, 'I'm sorry, you can't get certified," said Hernandez.
"Once we're aware that someone is DACA, we do our best to inform them when they're selecting their major," Jones said. "We can't tell them what they can't pursue and certainly someone could pursue something at Greenville Tech and then move to another state where they could sit for their licensing exam. But we're very responsible in making them aware of those limitations in our state."
Unlike South Carolina, several states — including California, Oregon, Washington, Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio, Alabama and New Mexico — offer in-state tuition to DACA students, according to the National Immigration Law Center. Some states also offer state financial aid for those students.
Because South Carolina's DACA students cannot receive state or federal scholarships, Jones and Hernandez work to identify other financial aid for those students.
The Greenvile Tech Foundation, for instance, has money set aside specifically for DACA students.
"The scholarship is typically used to reduce the amount of tuition they have to pay out of pocket," Jones said. "I wish we could help all DACA students but we don't have the funds for it yet."
Who should benefit?
The DACA program is reserved for immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before their 16th birthday and were under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012, and are currently attending school, have a high school diploma or GED, or have an honorable discharge from the U.S. armed forces, according to the S.C. Hispanic Alliance.
Camarota asked, “Should the state be subsidizing people who are not even supposed to be in the country at the same time that so many people who were born in South Carolina are struggling to afford college?"
Campbell, the Carolina High Spanish teacher, said South Carolina's leaders seem to be penalizing Dreamers as a way of trying to force undocumented parents out of the country.
"It's almost as if South Carolina is trying to hold students hostage against their parents," Campbell said. The mentality, Campbell said, is "if we can make our state as uncomfortable as we can, maybe the parents will just leave."
State House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford has proposed a bill that would give in-state tuition to any student who has lived in the state for three years, regardless of immigration status, but the bill has not garnered much legislative support.
A better living
Hernandez, the DACA student, said Obama's 2012 executive order gave young immigrants some "peace of mind," though the specter of deportation always looms in the background.
"I think that's a constant fear, as an immigrant living in the U.S.," Hernandez said. "But you can't hide all the time."
Hernandez doesn't understand why elected officials want to deny opportunity to qualified young people who grew up in America and feel as American as any native-born student.
"They're just trying to work and make a better living for themselves and their families," she said.
Hernandez's parents journeyed from Mexico City and first settled in Georgia before moving to South Carolina when Erika was 8 years old. She attended Cherrydale Elementary and League Academy before advancing to Greenville High.
The cosmetology program in which she participated was competitive: only 20 students were accepted out of 55 applicants.
"It's almost like a college course," Hernandez said. "They want to make sure you're responsible as far as grades and attendance."
She rode a bus on school days from Greenville High, where she took the typical high school courses, to the Donaldson Center to study hair, nails, makeup, beautification and related health issues.
The students amassed far more than the 1,500 hours of training required to get a cosmetology license, Hernandez said.
Of the 20 students in her cosmetology class, four were DACA students, Hernandez said.
The four DACA students passed their exams, but all four were denied the licenses they needed to work in a salon, Hernandez said.
All of the native-born students in the class, however, received their cosmetology licenses, Hernandez said.
By federal law, K-12 teachers are not allowed to question a student's immigration status, so Greenville High educators might not necessarily have known that four DACA students were in the class and would be denied an occupational license.
Hernandez spent $150 on the two tests (one theory, one practical) required for a cosmetology license. She noted wryly that the rejection letter she received didn't include a refund.
The Greenville News reached out to the executive director of the state Cosmetology Board, but she did not respond. A receptionist with the board said she was not allowed to provide phone numbers for any of the gubernatorial-appointed board members.
Having to leave
Erik Martinez, 19, another DACA student, studies computer-aided graphic design at Greenville Technical College.
He has to work full-time at a pizza parlor in order to pay for his part-time, out-of-state tuition, which Tech officials say is about double what in-state students pay.
When possible, he works overtime.
"Sometimes I put in 60 hours because I need the money for college," Martinez said.
Born in a small town in Mexico, Martinez was brought to the U.S. by his parents when he was 8 years old.
He graduated from Greenville High with a 3.8 grade point average.
After graduation, Martinez said, "I'll have to go to another state to get a license."
It's not a prospect that he relishes.
"My family really doesn't want me to leave," he said.
Hernandez also has considered moving to another state to get her cosmetology license and study to become a perinatal nurse.
"I'm definitely considering it," she said.
Asked if she's ever been tempted to simply give up on her dream of being a nurse, Hernandez responded firmly:
"No, I'm not. I've been working hard. We all have had really good grades, so we're not going to give up on our ultimate goals."