At 27 years old, Israel Ortega of North Charleston is entering unfamiliar territory. On Sunday, he and his wife became new parents. On Tuesday, in what immigration advocates called a historic moment, he became a student at Trident Technical College.
Ortega is an illegal immigrant who was granted a temporary stay in the United States through the Department of Homeland Security’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA. That cleared the way for him to enroll at Trident.
Ortega stood Tuesday at the admissions window at the North Charleston campus on Rivers Avenue and became one of the school’s first DACA students.
Getting to that moment didn’t come without obstacles.
Two weeks ago, when Ortega first tried to register for classes, he was turned away by the college’s admissions office, whose leaders cited a state law that restricted Ortega’s enrollment. After receiving legal clarification, Trident Tech opened its doors to Ortega and others Tuesday.
“It means a lot because now I can get educated. Now I can provide a future for my family and my new kid,” Ortega said.
Ortega was joined at the school by Diana Salazar, founder of the Latino Association of Charleston, who had protested the school’s actions on Feb. 5, when Ortega was told he couldn’t attend because he was in the country illegally.
Enrollment officials pointed to the state’s Illegal Immigration Reform Act, which bans people who are in the country illegally from attending and benefiting from public institutions such as Trident.
“It was difficult because I thought with DACA I would get accepted, but I didn’t,” Ortega said.
Salazar argued that the federal order trumped the state law.
Trident Tech’s leaders reached out to the state’s Commission on Higher Education for clarification, school spokesman David Hansen said. The commission gave Trident the green light to enroll DACA students, he said.
“We are pleased with this positive information that allows DACA recipients to continue their education at TTC and have the opportunity to pursue their life-long dreams,” Mary Thornley, Trident Technical College’s president, said in a statement.
History in making
Salazar hopes Ortega and 10 other DACA students who she said will now enroll in the college will set the stage for similar acceptance nationwide.
“Hopefully, Trident will be an example for the whole state of South Carolina and the country,” Salazar said. “I think its going to open a lot of eyes, a lot of hearts.”
Ortega was the second DACA recipient enrolled at the college.
What is DACA?
On June 15 the Secretary of Homeland Security announced that people who came to the United States as children and met certain guidelines may request consideration to stay in the country for at least two years. Those who qualify would then be eligible for work authorization.
Among other things, the guidelines require that applicants must have entered the U.S. before his or her 16th birthday, have continuously lived in the U.S. since June 15, 2007, and have not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor or three or more other misdemeanors. The application fee is $465.
‘I’m here fighting’
Ortega wants to go into the medical profession, but he’s not sure which medical field he wants to study. “The list was so long,” he joked.
But having the chance to study and make a decent living for his family means the world, he said. While some may believe Ortega doesn’t belong here, he said this first step helps validate what he has felt all along.
“It’s hard for me because I’ve been here most of my life and I don’t feel like an outsider,” he said. “And when someone calls me an outsider, my self-esteem gets down a little bit, but I’m here fighting.”
Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.