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Victor Perez had to leave South Carolina to be able to pursue higher education.
Victor Perez had to leave South Carolina to be able to pursue higher education. Credit: Emrys Eller for The Hechinger Report

This story was produced by The Island Packet and The State, and reprinted with permission.

While South Carolina taxpayers spend roughly $13,200 annually to educate each K-12 student, state policies obstruct one group of students from advancing their education beyond high school.

Dreamers, or young people brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents when they were children, must pay tuition at the same rate as out-of-state students at South Carolina public colleges and are not eligible for state-sponsored financial aid.

As a result, many Dreamers — who number about 6,500 in South Carolina, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — have few affordable in-state options once they complete high school. Some move to other states to pursue their education or don’t go to college at all.

That’s hurting the state’s economy and workforce, say advocates for South Carolina’s Dreamers.

The policy is “bad for those individuals, but it’s also bad for all of us,” said Benjamin Roth, a University of South Carolina professor who studies the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, or DACA. The program, passed in 2012 during President Barack Obama’s administration, was designed to protect Dreamers from deportation.

South Carolina is one of two states that ban the admission of undocumented students. If South Carolina public colleges enroll Dreamers, they charge the Dreamers out-of-state tuition, according to the S.C. Commission on Higher Education. It’s one of several states without tuition equality laws.

The difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition is often significant. At both Clemson University and the University of South Carolina, for example, annual out-of-state tuition is about $20,000 more than in-state tuition.

Charging Dreamers the same tuition rates as other in-state students would benefit taxpayers who are already footing the bill for their K-12 education, said State Rep. Neal Collins, a Republican who represents Pickens County.

“The majority of [DACA recipients] would testify that America is their only home. They’re going to be in our communities and they’re going to live in our state,” Collins said. “So we have two simple choices: Let them pursue education, get higher-paying jobs, have more spending power and pay more in taxes. Or we can create hurdles for them.”

Collins introduced a bill this past legislative session to allow DACA recipients in South Carolina to pay in-state tuition and be eligible for professional licenses from state boards, which they are currently banned from receiving.

While the bill stalled in the House, Collins said he plans to refile it next session.

“By my calculations, we have about 300 Dreamers that are going to graduate from high school in the next week or two,” Collins said. “And in a sense, we’ve failed them.”

Victor Perez speaks during a protest in downtown Kansas City, MO.
Victor Perez speaks during a protest in downtown Kansas City, MO. Credit: Emrys Eller for The Hechinger Report

Dreamers are mostly employed taxpayers.

In South Carolina, an estimated 90.3 percent of the DACA population is employed, according to the New American Economy, a bipartisan group of business leaders whose co-chairs include Rupert Murdoch and Michael Bloomberg. The group estimates that Dreamers in South Carolina pay an estimated $6.8 million in state and local taxes.

Allowing DACA recipients to get higher education and better-paying jobs translates into them paying more taxes — which in turn helps pay for the state’s public school system and other government services, said Andrew Lim, director of quantitative research at the New American Economy.

“These are tax dollars that go back to public education for students of all background,” Lim said. “It’s a win-win for everyone in the state.”

Related: The unseen obstacles facing undocumented college students

Victor Perez, 24, a Dreamer whose parents brought him from Mexico to Summerville, South Carolina, when he was 10, knows first-hand about the challenges of attending college in the state.

When he sat down to apply for college, he was discouraged to find that they were prohibitively expensive, he said. Annual tuition for non-residents was about $30,000 at the College of Charleston and $50,000 at The Citadel.

So he moved, trading the palmettos of the Lowcountry for the rolling hills of Park University, outside of Kansas City, Missouri.

A protest in support of DACA in downtown Kansas City, MO.
A protest in support of DACA in downtown Kansas City, MO. Credit: Emrys Eller for The Hechinger Report

Perez received an academic scholarship to the private college, which covers about a third of his $12,000 annual tuition. He works full-time at a T-Mobile store to pay the rest of his tuition, as his immigration status prevents him from taking out student loans.

Other South Carolina students, such Carla Teixeira, simply leave the U.S. altogether.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in biology on a full ride from Columbia College, in South Carolina, in 2014, Teixeira decided to pursue her master’s in health promotion in Ontario, Canada. It was the only graduate program she could afford.

“It’s a shame because a lot of the Dreamers that I had the privilege of knowing while I was in South Carolina were some of the most hard-working, super-smart people,” Teixeira said, who was brought to the state by her parents in 2003. “If they had the opportunity to go to school, they would do amazing things, like become doctors and lawyers.”

Nationally, about 800,000 Dreamers who have received DACA protection have Social Security numbers and are eligible for driver’s licenses and can legally work.

But of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from U.S. high school each year, only 5 to 10 percent continue their education, according the U.S. Department of Education. Even fewer graduate from college: Just 1 to 3 percent, according to the United We Dream Network.

Some South Carolina politicians argue, meanwhile, that the state should be focusing on native South Carolinians.

“My first commitment in this state is the people who are trying to get into college who are residents, and who were born and raised in South Carolina,” said State Rep. Rita Allison, a Republican from Spartanburg and chairwoman of the House education committee.

Although she supports the state law requiring Dreamers to pay out-of-state tuition, she said she is open to discussing changes to it if Collins’ bill advances.

Just how many students would be affected by a change in state law is impossible to say. It’s illegal for K-12 public schools to ask about a student’s immigration status.

But South Carolina has a large population of Hispanic students, an unknown portion of whom is undocumented. As of 2016, Hispanic students made up 8.6 percent of the students enrolled in the state’s public schools.

In some parts of the state, including Beaufort County, that percentage is much higher. The number of Hispanic students in the Beaufort County School District climbed from 17 percent in 2006 to nearly a quarter in 2017.

Related: Undocumented high schoolers work long hours, putting college further out of reach

Once Dreamers graduate from high school, they must navigate barriers set up by South Carolina legislators who passed the Illegal Immigration Reform Act in 2008.

For Perez and his good friend Brandon Ordaz — who consider each other brothers — that meant taking divergent paths into adulthood.

Ordaz stayed in South Carolina and worked for his family’s construction company. The other, Perez, left the state, looking for something more.

He had originally moved to South Carolina in 2004. About five years later, law enforcement began cracking down on undocumented families, Perez recalled.

“My parents just decided to go back [to Mexico] at that time because they just couldn’t afford to live under the radar, with the pressure of [getting deported if police pulled them over] just driving to buy some groceries or going to work,” he said.

But Perez was determined to finish high school in the United States, so he moved in with Ordaz’s family.

One night when Perez was 17, a couple of cops pulled him over as he drove. DACA would not be passed for another year, so he didn’t have a driver’s license. He could only give them his Mexican ID.

The officers handcuffed Perez and drove him to a police station. He remembers being fingerprinted and locked in a room with others awaiting bail. He stayed up all night, crying.

“I felt like I was going to disappoint my family if I was going to be deported when I was almost done with high school,” Perez said.

Since Perez was a minor, the police released him after his ticket was paid. But that arrest flipped a sort of switch in him. He wanted to make something of himself, to help his community. And he knew he had to go to college to have any real chance of creating change.

After high school, Perez worked in a construction job for a year and saved up enough to move with his brother to Kansas City. He studied for a short time at a community college before earning the academic scholarship to Park University.

Now, he hopes he can graduate next year — that is, before his DACA status expires. He’s pursuing a double major in marketing and human resources, with the goal of working for a business or nonprofit that focuses on poverty, education or human rights.

President Donald Trump announced in September that he would end the DACA program and called on Congress to pass a more permanent solution through a revised immigration law — a task that Congress has not yet finished.

For now, DACA current recipients such as Perez may continue to renew their legal status in the country.

Ordaz, meanwhile, is still in South Carolina, working in construction.

Enrolling in college would only complicate his life further, he said. As one of his family’s major financial providers, he would likely need to move his relatives to another state in order to have a shot at attending an affordable college, he said. Then he would have to wait to qualify for in-state tuition.

Ordaz is proud of Perez. But he’s also frustrated by what he sees as the barriers created by South Carolina.

“From an economic point of view, it really doesn’t make sense,” Ordaz said. “Why would they let us finish high school if they make it too expensive to go to college?”

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