Jessica Bonilla Garcia has a dream.
She told the world about it on Martin Luther King Jr. Day at Hilton Head Island High School.
Jessica is a “Dreamer.” She is a DACA recipient who recently renewed her two-year permit to defer deportation.
“I didn’t have a choice in coming here,” she told the annual gathering that follows a march to celebrate the life and teachings of MLK.
“Unfortunately, I have only 425 days to stay.”
Jessica was 4 years old when she came to Hilton Head, 20 years ago. Her father and pregnant mother came from Mexico on visitor visas. He works in construction, primarily carpentry, she said. Her mother is a housekeeper in several Hilton Head homes. They overstayed their visa time limits, Jessica said.
“My family was seeking a better life,” she said.
Jessica was proud to “speak from the gut” in her old high school. She told me she will “forever bleed the blue” of the Seahawks.
Jessica calls herself a natural learner. Now as a graphic designer at Curry Printing on Mathews Drive, she muses at the Kid Pix computer program they used in her days at Hilton Head Elementary School. She stayed in the English as a Second Language classes for only a couple of years. At home, she taught her mother English while her mother taught her Spanish.
She was in the class of 2012 at Hilton Head Island High. She was in that crowd that rode buses to Columbia in her senior year when her school was named Palmetto’s Finest. She played on back-to-back state championship soccer teams. She was in the Interact Club and National Honor Society. She was honored on senior night as a super Seahawk. She thinks she was in the top 10 percent of her 223-member class that sent its valedictorian to Penn and salutatorian to MIT.
After the festive graduation ceremony on the Seahawk football field, she hit a wall.
‘A complete miracle’
With no Social Security card, going to college and getting financial aid was going to be virtually impossible.
Also, South Carolina’s legislature passed a law to make sure students like Jessica pay out-of-state tuition, can’t get state-funded merit scholarships, and can’t get state professional licenses if their career choice requires one.
But Jessica played on a soccer club team and a college coach emailed her after watching her play in Columbia.
“So that was a complete miracle,” she told me in an interview this week at her workplace. “It was like a message from God.
“A couple of days before, I was lying in bed with my mom, crying. I said, ‘Why do I keep trying?’ She tried her hardest not to break down. She said, ‘I know. There is a God who looks out for us. Keep going.’ I kept going, like I always have.”
Columbia College, a private, women-only liberal arts school in Columbia, accepted Jessica as an international student, helping her with academic, art and athletic scholarships. The rest was paid by her mother, in monthly installments, so Jessica graduated in 2016 with no debt.
She always felt welcome in a school with students from Vietnam, Japan, Australia, Ireland, England, Florida, New York, Chicago, and she found a home within a home on the soccer team.
She was editor in chief of The Columbian yearbook, was in honor societies, was a writing tutor, and worked in graphic design in the school’s Goodall Gallery.
And she graduated magna cum laude, majoring in studio art with a concentration in graphic design and minoring in applied computing with a concentration in business.
‘They worked hard’
The journey was not always as joyous as that second graduation day, her arms filled with a bouquet of flowers and colorful honor cords flowing over her black gown.
There was that day in elementary school when a group of boys called her illegal and someone said, “What do you care? You don’t even have a green card.”
She went home confused and crying. She told the MLK audience, “It blew my mind that a human being could be illegal.”
That day, her mother told her the whole story.
“In the back of my mind, I knew I was not allowed to be here, but I didn’t let that stop me from learning,” she said. “I tried to be a good American citizen, even though I knew I was illegal.”
She received the DACA credentials while in college. It was harder for her to get than it was for others because her family had twice returned to Mexico.
She felt like an outsider when they went to the small town near Brownsville, Texas, where she barely knew her grandmom, aunts, uncles and cousins. They presumed she was snobby and Americanized. When she went to school there, most classes were outdoors. The English teacher asked her for help. She heard gunfire at night in a border area known for violence. She heard that some of her cousins were killed by gangs, their bodies piled in ditches on unpaved roads with stray dogs all around.
During the second extended stay there, her parents split apart. Her mother came back to Hilton Head with the two children and raised them as a single mom, she said. Her parents are now back together, but the extra legal expense and travel her situation required for DACA credentials was hard on her mom, who does volunteer work with the annual Latino Unidos Food Festival to benefit the Volunteers in Medicine charity.
DACA recipients are considered the cream of the crop of the next generation. To qualify, they must be in school or working and have no criminal record. They generally show purpose and drive, advocates say.
“They worked hard to be where they are,” Jessica said. “They want only to contribute.”
Jessica works two jobs. At night, she’s in sales at the Nike outlet in Bluffton.
“It’s not cheap to live here,” she said.
To her family, Hilton Head is a place of opportunity because many workers are needed. And it is a safe place.
To Jessica, it is home.
She said her speech at the MLK event was a small contribution to the national debate about Dreamers.
“Don’t cut off the wings of all the Dreamers,” she said. “Let them fly and accomplish their dreams.”