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Sharron Bowers helps students Isabella Bocoli of Brazil, Tony Durante of Italy and Carlos Conde of Spain with phrasal verbs during their English as a Second Language class at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

A Japanese anesthesiologist, a Spanish paratrooper, a Brazilian attorney. In their past lives, they never would have met.

But three times a week, seven classmates join each other at a folding table at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church, where volunteer teachers guide them through English as a Second Language classes centered around phrasal verbs and the definition of a "couch potato."

They cheered when they learned that Tony Durante received his green card the day before, and groaned when Kathy Saire shared that she'd soon have to return to her native Peru when her visa expired.

News like that is common to the classroom, program manager Hayden Shook said. Most students attend classes for around two years before leaving Charleston or mastering English.

Learning English and finding friends are the easy parts. Navigating the complex paperwork, uncertain answers and long wait times of the country’s immigration process is the real hurdle to some.

Saire had worked in Peru's tourism industry for years before joining The Dewberry's staff this year. She and her family also sell traditional woven bracelets, which her teacher and some classmates wore. They'll miss her in class, they said, though one woman planning her own departure was happy for her.

Charleston's booming businesses bring in a significant portion of the immigrants living in South Carolina, immigration attorney David Vyborny said. Many come to work seasonal jobs in hospitality and agriculture with temporary non-immigrant employment visas, while local companies petition for permanent immigrant employment visas to hire engineers and executives from around the world.

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Esra Bayram of Turkey, Kathy Saire of Peru and Aki Okamoto of Japan (from left) work on their language skills during an ESL class at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

But many immigrants can't legally work, and have to live off of savings or their family members' incomes. Even those who will be authorized wait months for their paperwork to be processed through federal offices, which tend to take longer than the documents processed through South Carolina's field offices, which don't handle the number of cases that immigration hubs like New York and Atlanta see, Vyborny said.

Isabella Bocoli has commuted from Summerville for the classes since she and her husband moved to the town for his career in summer 2019. Bocoli, an attorney from Brazil, isn't authorized to begin her search for work as a paralegal. After two years, the couple plans to decide whether they want to stay permanently.

"We love Brazil, but it's so violent and there's always problems with the politicians," Bocoli said. "And I was working 10-, 11-hour days."

Her months in South Carolina have been like a vacation, she said with a grin. She studies for about four hours each day, listens to crime podcasts in English to supplement her lessons, and takes care of Angel, a dog she and her husband recently rescued.

Many of her fellow students are in a similar position, Shook said, learning as much English as possible to communicate with their new neighbors, and to hit the ground running once they're able to begin work and establish permanent homes.

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Students Isabella Bocoli of Brazil, Tony Durante of Italy and Carlos Conde of Spain (from left) attend an English as a Second Language class at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Durante had never been to Charleston when he selected his new home from a U.S. map. The southern Italian met his American wife when she taught him English, and after years living together in southern Italy, the couple decided to move to the U.S.

But Durante didn't want to deal with the cold in his wife's native Colorado, and couldn't stomach the thought of the long journey from California to Italy. He scoured the map for an East Coast city that would balance sunshine and breeze, and settled on Charleston. They now live in Mount Pleasant with their 4-year-old son.

Durante knew the move would require patience, but didn't expect to wait a full year for his green card to arrive. But 10 to 13 months is average for applicants with American spouses, and some wait times have doubled since 1991.

"I live well here," Durante said. "But the paperwork, it's very hard."

Because of nationality-based caps on green cards, applicants from high-population countries with more emigration can expect to wait longer. Wait times also depend on the type of visa requested. Someone from Malta married to an American might receive their card as soon as the application has been processed, while an Indian moving for employment may wait decades.

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Hayden Shook teaches class in an English as a Second Language Program at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Agencies and courts have been stricter to clients over the past few years, Vyborny said.

For those who don't have current documentation, the Lowcountry is still a welcoming place, activist Lydia Cotton said. In her role as community liaison for the North Charleston Police Department, she focuses on introducing new immigrants to the officers in their neighborhoods, dispelling fears that reporting crimes or asking for help could lead to trouble with federal authorities. It's important to her that undocumented immigrants know federal agents won't show up to hurricane shelters or community events.

"The fear is not difficult to get rid of, all you have to do is talk," Cotton said. "I am not going to defend (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement), but North Charleston is the example for every city in the state."

Cotton didn't speak English and had a loose grasp on local politics when she moved to South Carolina from Puerto Rico, she said, but news and city council meetings quickly brought her up to speed. 

"When I came ... I was watching a pingpong game I did not understand how to play," Cotton said. "But a language barrier is not an excuse not to communicate."

In the 20 years since, she's made it her mission to ensure the Lowcountry's Latinos can trust each other and their city officials, and focus on enriching their community.

"Anything that is fear is poison," Cotton said. "All that we bring to the table, we could do 20 times more without fear."

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Marks on the world map show the home countries of students in the English as a Second Language class at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

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Reach Sara Coello at 843-901-2995 and follow her on Twitter @smlcoello.