Recently, we got to sit down and meet with Jonatan Guerrero-Ramirez to learn about his story and how being a DACA recipients has impacted his life. Jonatan was among one of the first DACA recipients, entering the program at its inception in 2012.
This week we are looking at a more recent recipient to learn about her story. Valentina Olguin has lived in the Charleston area most of her life, coming to the US from Argentina with her family when she was only a year old. We sat down to learn more about her upbringing and her current challenges as she works on her education goals and looking forward at the future.
Can you tell us a bit about your family?
I have one sister, an older sister, she isn’t with me, she’s on her own, I live with my dad. My mom right now lives in Argentina.
How long have you lived in Charleston?
All my life. I was born in Argentina, and I came when I was one year old.
Did your family share with you the story of coming to the US?
Not really. My dad told me we left Argentina because there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for them or us growing up. The school system is really different too. My dad wanted a better education [for us].
How did your family choose Charleston?
I’m not sure exactly. My parents first moved to California the first day they came to the US. I wasn’t born yet; they came with my sister. They got so scared of how big California was and they weren’t used to the city since they were from the country in Argentina. So, they actually went back to Argentina and then they decided to come back, but my dad came first to get a job and went to Florida first to start working. He heard there was a lot of opportunity there for work. Then he, I’m not sure why, came with a friend to Charleston and realized it was more stable and he could get an apartment. That’s when we came when I was 1.
I came when I was one. This is my life. I feel like I’m an American citizen.– Valentina
What was it like growing up in Charleston?
I feel I had a really good childhood. We in that time had friends who were from Argentina and we lived in the same apartment complex. We were always with them, always out. It was really fun. We stopped hanging out with them because of problems, then my parents got divorced and I grew up. My childhood was good, it was just my teenage years that were not as good. I would say I had a good childhood.
What does your dad do?
He’s a welder.
About the family’s undocumented status, how aware were you of it growing up?
It was always a really big deal, just because being illegal you have a lot of fear for everyone in the family. Airports, and stuff. He was scared of it. My dad would pray before driving. Seeing the police, everyone would freeze. They knew if we got pulled over, they knew things could go wrong. Even when I was little, I knew.
Is your undocumented status something you and your sister talk a lot about?
We talk a lot about it, I think I’ve seen my dad’s personality change a lot being here alone, because his family is still over there. We talk a lot about that, just seeing how my dad has changed being alone here and knowing he can’t see his family.
Do you not have any extended family in the US?
No. It’s me, my dad and my sister.
Do you have friends in community you look to or talk to for different problems or issues?
Not really. I have friends, but not anyone that guides me or helps me out through things.
Can you talk a bit about school? Especially related to your legal status. Did it make a big impact on you the last few years?
Definitely. I didn’t think about it before because I could go to elementary, middle and high school. I knew I could go to college because I got DACA, but I remember feeling really disappointed because my guidance counselor in high school told me that I was going to be able to use scholarships I got in high school and to keep my grades up for that. I think it was the Life Scholarship and it was 5000 grand every semester which would cover everything. She was very sure that I could and then I went to Trident and I told them I had this, and they said I wasn’t able to use it because I wasn’t a citizen. I was really shocked. I felt like the counselor, they should know at least a little bit about DACA. They took away the scholarship and we had to pay double as well. Instead of $500 for each class, I had to pay $1000. I did my two years at Trident, and I was going to go to College of Charleston and I knew it was going to be a little more expensive, but I didn’t know it was going to be out of state. Instead of $11,000, it was $32,000. So right now… we’re thinking about that one.
Education rules for DACA recipients are complicated as they vary by state. South Carolina does allow DACA recipients to attend public college or universities. DACA recipients, however, must pay out-of-state costs to do so. Undocumented individuals without DACA currently are not allowed to attend public college or universities. Private colleges may accept undocumented recipients without DACA. For more information about applying for college as a DACA recipient or undocumented person, see DACA United SC’s Resource Guide for Immigrants in SC.
The financial burden is tremendous for DACA recipients attending college in South Carolina. Recipients here currently do not qualify for state scholarships like The Legislative Incentive for Future Excellence (LIFE). Currently eleven states – California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Texas, and Washington – offer state financial aid to DACA recipients. Additional states like Utah have allowed universities to use private resources to support financial aid for DACA recipients. (Source: NCSL)
South Carolina is one of six states – others include Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, and Missouri – that ban unauthorized immigrant students from receiving any form of in-state tuition benefit.
Have you looked into applying into other colleges, or was the idea to stay close to the family?
It was the idea at first because I wanted to stay close to my dad, but when I looked into the info given to me and looked at the schools, there were some that would be cheaper. We calculated the cost of living on my own though, plus that and it would come out to the same. It came out to be around $29,000 when living at home would be $30,000. It’s cheaper, but also the same when we think about it that way.
Is there anyone else you talked to for guidance, especially for applying to DACA, or was that something you did on your own?
I was actually blessed that my dad could pay for a lawyer to help us with that. I remember being not really looking too much into it. My dad said we’re doing this, and you’re going to be able to have DACA and just renew it every two years.
What are you interested in studying?
I got an associate art at Trident because I wasn’t sure what I would go into. I was originally interested in psychology, then I kind of moved to law. I liked the idea of being able to defend people, especially in immigration law which is weird because I was in that. I don’t know, I thought it would be a good career because I lived it and I could help people who didn’t know their rights. I’m also interested in helping in sex trafficking. I don’t know what career I could do in that but it’s a really big interest I’ve always had. Those are my ideas.
What is something you wish people knew about DACA?
I think a lot of people who don’t really understand DACA think it’s just a program to help people. It’s not a right. I just feel like… I came when I was one. This is my life. I feel like I’m an American citizen. I feel like I live here. I love my country, but I don’t know my country. It feels weird that I have to fight for the same rights even though I grew up here. People don’t realize that that’s how we feel, we want to belong where we live because that’s where we’ve lived. People who come older or come in for a different circumstance. They are searching for something better in their life. I feel everyone should have the possibility to get an education or to get a job or do whatever you want to do. In your country you are literally unsafe or there’s nothing there for you. I wish people would understand that feeling, that feeling you deserve it because you grew up here or don’t have another option.
Have you thought about what would happen if DACA ended and you had to leave the US?
I have. I know I wouldn’t go back to Argentina. I know a lot of people there, family wise. There’s a lot of people that tell me there’s not a lot of jobs out there and the cost of living is really expensive. My mom lived in Europe for a long time. She told me the schools are free and the education is really good. I always planned to go to Europe with my family if we had to leave here.
Do you still have a close relationship with your mom?
It’s not as close as before. But I still talk to her.
You said you’d go to Europe with your family. Would you join your mom or your dad and sister? Do you have a chance to migrate legally…Would you prefer to be undocumented there than here I guess is the question I’m asking?
Um…[long pause]. I’m not sure. I’ve never lived there or anything. My mom was undocumented there for awhile, but then she was able to get her citizenship from a great, great grandfather. From the time she was undocumented she said it was completely different than here. She didn’t feel the fear of being deported or you don’t drive a lot there too, that’s a big difference. It’s a big change from being illegal here.
So, in theory you could also qualify for some immigration benefits over there.
Yes. It’s really difficult, but possible.
If there were three biggest concerns you have right now, what are they?
I think my number one is – I know it should be me – but I care a lot about my dad. I feel like 20 years is a long time to be separated from everyone you grew up with. I want something for dad to be able to travel at least or help in that situation. I know that is probably impossible right now. Another concern would be this DACA [situation]. Everything I learned these past months that I wasn’t going to be able to get a license here or pay for my tuition. I looked into the states I would be able to, and the only three states I found that would give you a license and in-state tuition I think was New York, Illinois and California. They’re just really big cities. I feel like I wouldn’t be able to make that change or that adjustment out of being here. So that worries me, what I’m going to do if I have to stop going to school until some change happens or if I have to make the change of living somewhere else.
Also that he doesn’t have DACA, so his situation is more different. It would just be my dad, and you know, him finding some type of help with that and me being able to find some solution to going to school and….
For anyone in your position, what advice would you give based on your experience that someone younger would benefit from?
I would say do your research. Don’t depend so much on the system. DACA is really important; a lot of people [do] know about it. I feel like it’s something not a lot of people think [about though], because they aren’t putting it into the school where a lot of DACA people go, so just do your research and try to inform yourself. Because you get stuck in the position where you graduated high school and didn’t look at different options like me, which is what happened.
Visit this story via The State Newspaper about DACA Recipients Leaving SC for opportunities: https://www.thestate.com/news/state/south-carolina/article251063484.html
Visit DACA United SC for more info on the ins and outs of DACA: https://dacaunitedsc.org/
Help Valentina and other DACA recipients in SC Get a Pathway to Citizenship Now
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