EASLEY — Sarai Bautista and Rep. Neal Collins seem like an unlikely pairing. One, a state legislator representing one of the most conservative districts in the state, the other, a woman from Mexico brought here as an undocumented immigrant by her parents when she was a child: A Dreamer.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was a policy that allowed people who entered the country as undocumented minors to apply for a renewable two-year period of “deferred action” from deportation.
It allowed nearly a million undocumented young people — including 6,400 right here in S.C. — to attend college, obtain work permits and get a drivers license.
What the program didn’t do was allow for a path to citizenship and when plans to phase out DACA were initiated by the Trump Administration in September of last year, it left around 800,000 young students, workers and families in limbo.
As of now, Bautista may not be a citizen, but she is legal: She has renewed her DACA application — faithfully — three times.
“It can be frustrating,” she said during an interview with The Sentinel-Progress. “My DACA is on record. The problem is we don’t have anywhere to go from here. People say it all the time: ‘Why don’t you become a citizen?’ And the answer is, I can’t. None of us can.”
Essentially, it’s a Catch 22.
Bautista, who came to the U.S. from Puebla, Mexico with her family when she was 11-years-old, can’t apply for citizenship under the current laws because she entered the country “illegally.” Nor can she return to Mexico and apply to return, because again, before DACA, she was living here “illegally.”
When asked where she considered home, Bautista didn’t hesitate.
“Here. South Carolina. Easley,” she said. “This is my home. I don’t want to live anywhere else and to be honest, I don’t remember much of Mexico — just childhood feelings and images.”
Bautista described her Spanish as “it’s OK, I understand it better than I speak it,” and stated it was Mexico that was a foreign country to her — not the U.S.
“I was 11-years-old when we left, I just really don’t remember it all that well,” she said.
As happy as Bautista is with her life here in the States — she graduated from Easley High School, she has a full time job — there have been some bumps in the road. She was a year into a radiology program at a local community college when she discovered she would be denied a state license due to her citizenship status.
“That was devastating,” she said. “I had worked so hard and to learn it was for nothing, that I had to start over in something else, it was crushing.”
Bautista said it could have been worse, she knew other DACA recipients who went through entire nursing school programs before realizing they could not be licensed.
“It was made even more difficult because I was paying for school out of pocket, so I could only take a few classes at a time,” she said. “I’m actually not in school (college) at all right now — but I’d like to go back.”
In S.C., DACA recipients are also not eligible for in-state tuition.
Enter Neal Collins …
“I serve on the Children’s Committee. We held five public input meetings across the state in the fall. We had over 30 DACA recipients/Dreamers testify to us,” he said. “I had heard of the legal issues, but those who testified put the issues in plain view. The legal issues are simple to me, it makes no conservative, moral, political, or legal sense to educate a child k-12, but then say she cannot receive in-state tuition or apply for occupational licenses, especially when we have nurse, teacher and other workforce shortages.”
He’s not alone. The bill, H. 4435, has gained a strong following in the House and has since been co-sponsored by 15 Representatives — from both sides of the aisle.
But there have been critics. Vocal critics.
“I try not to let it bother me when I see these hateful comments on Facebook but, it does,” said Bautista. “I just think the people who are so against what he’s (Collins) trying to do don’t have all the facts. There’s this idea out there that if you’re giving something to someone, you must be taking it away from someone else. But I’m not looking for anyone to give me anything — I don’t mind working for it — but right now I can’t even do that. We just need the chance to earn it.”
Collins agreed, saying he thought the negative views were coming from three different angles.
“The first is true hate. I have seen it much more in my role,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s there, but fortunately it is a small minority. The second is the misinformed. The public doesn’t have a good grasp of the difference between an undocumented immigrant, a documented immigrant and a DACA recipient — or how one can or cannot become a legal citizen. With Dreamers, for example, there is no line to get into. This has been the biggest push back. Finally, there is another segment that appears to understand the nuances, but want all foreigners deported and to ‘get in line.’ I don’t believe these people come at it with hate, but simply a rigid, black and white viewpoint.”
To say the least, anything to do with DACA has been a political minefield lately — and for Collins, it’s an election year. When asked if that gave him pause before wading into this quagmire with H. 4435, he shook his head.
“Every other year is election year in the House. This is the only job I’ve ever had that some believe we can’t do half the time, so that we can stay in the job we only do half the time. So, no, it did not give me pause,” he said. “Yes, like with every issue, it’ll upset some and draw praise from others.”
From the feedback he’s received so far, Collins said he believes he is representing the majority “of even my district on this issue.”
So, what would H. 4435 actually do?
In it’s simplest form, it allows for Dreamers to receive in state tuition, apply for state-supported grants and scholarships and obtain professional licensure. It also states, even without federal legislation, S.C. will have legal status Dreamers until March of 2020.
It is not, nor has it ever been, a path to citizenship.
Currently, H. 4435 is sitting in the Judiciary Committee and Collins is hesitant to make predictions as to it’s fate.
”I never like to give legislation odds because none of us know. We had a Dreamer Lobby Day (where) we were able to meet with the Speaker. I thought it was a very successful day — awareness was raised,” he said. “I believe if we receive a hearing, we will be successful. Few, even legislators, know the obstacles we place before Dreamers. The ones I’ve spoken to have been in favor of the bill even without sponsoring,” he said before adding a bill’s sponsor count is not a good indicator because most will “hold their cards to their chest” until they have to show them.
“I hope the road is short,” Collins said. “Dreamers have had these state obstacles since 2012. Two to three hundred Dreamers are graduating this May. We should’ve acted yesterday.”