COLUMBIA — Lenda Vazquez was working at a pharmacy in Lexington County in September when she pulled up a live-stream of a news conference on her phone to watch an announcement she had long feared.
President Donald Trump announced he would end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, in March, giving Congress six months to come up with a legislative solution for some 800,000 young adults brought to the United States illegally as children.
The Obama-era program that had allowed Vazquez and thousands of DACA recipients, known as "Dreamers," to emerge from the shadows was suddenly at risk.
"It was horrifying," said Vazquez. "I had to go into the bathroom for a few minutes just to think about what was going to happen. It was overwhelming."
For about as long as Vazquez has been able to talk, she has been a South Carolinian. Now 19 and working for her family's landscaping business, Vazquez moved to the Palmetto State from Mexico when she was 2 years old, first to Saluda County and then later to Lexington.
In recent months, Vazquez has joined other South Carolina immigration advocates at protests around the state and even made a trip to Washington to pressure Congress to take action.
But after three months of watching nervously with hopes that Congress would fill the void, DACA recipients in South Carolina are going to have to wait at least a little while longer for any resolution.
Following the passage of a major tax overhaul, lawmakers headed home for the holidays with nothing more than a promise from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that they could vote on some form of negotiated package when they return in January.
In the meantime, many of South Carolina's estimated 6,500 DACA recipients find themselves living in limbo.
"The constant anxiety of what's going to happen has been really hard," Vazquez said. "If or when my [work] permit expires, what's going to happen? How am I going to be able to help my family? How am I going to be able to support myself?"
Will a deal take shape next month?
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has for years been one of the most outspoken Senate Republicans in support of a more open immigration policy and has helped lead congressional efforts in recent months to revive a "DREAM Act" that would provide deportation protections and a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients.
That proposal has been met with fierce resistance from other Republicans who label the idea "amnesty," a term viewed as tantamount to heresy on the right.
Negotiations have centered around linking the DREAM Act with a more conservative proposal authored by U.S. Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla. and Thom Tillis, R-N.C. and including additional border security measures to appease wary conservatives.
At a Laurens Tea Party meeting in October, U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan cautioned conservative activists to be on watch, speculating that House GOP leaders would try to jam through some measure that could get approval from all Democrats and a few Republicans.
"It won't secure our border, it'll be a pathway to citizenship, a lot of things we disagree with," said Duncan, R-Laurens. "We've got to be very vigilant and we've got to be very vocal as Americans on this. I won't vote for anything until we secure our border."
McConnell has committed to holding a vote in January if an agreement is reached, but the proposal is still taking shape.
The missing component now, Graham told reporters this week, is that Trump needs to lay out what precise standard of "border security" would satisfy him as part of a deal.
White House chief of staff John Kelly began to do that in private negotiations with a small group of senators from both parties. Democrats emerged from those meetings saying the demands were too steep for them to stomach, signaling that plenty of work remains to reach any compromise.
'They might be a little hestitant'
Though most immigration policy is the purview of the federal government, some South Carolina lawmakers are looking to help DACA recipients at the state level while Congress delays.
State Reps. Neal Collins, R-Easley, and Will Wheeler, D-Bishopville, have pre-filed legislation for the upcoming session that would allow DACA recipients to pay in-state tuition at South Carolina public colleges, apply for scholarships and obtain occupational licenses from state regulators.
The Committee on Children, a panel that includes both lawmakers and citizens appointed by the governor, held four public hearings around the state during the fall.
The top issue that arose was help for DACA recipients, Collins said, with more than 30 "Dreamers" testifying about difficulties they had faced with access to higher education and licensed professions.
"I knew it was an issue in the state, but putting those real-life stories behind it made me realize it's well past time for us to address it in South Carolina," Collins said.
At least 21 states already provide in-state tuition for undocumented students, though some have moved to revoke the policy.
The bill may face an uphill battle in the Republican-dominated General Assembly, particularly because GOP lawmakers face primary voters in June.
"Because it's an election year, they might be a little hesitant," Collins said.
But from a fiscally conservative standpoint, Collins argued that investing in DACA recipients at a young age by giving them a public education then cutting them off from access to jobs once they graduate high school makes little sense.
"I would hope that, even as conservatives, we can say we're not going to invest over $100,000 in a child over 13 years and then say they can't pursue the American dream," Collins said.