The 2021 legislative session marked positive efforts to improve educational and job opportunities for South Carolina’s more than 5,500 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients. Heading into 2022, separate bills introduced by Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg and Rep. Neal Collins, R-Pickens are poised for increased traction and hopeful passage. Respectively, the bills would grant college-going recipients in-state tuition and access to state-funded scholarships, and would allow access to professional licenses required for numerous jobs in the state.

South Carolina has critical job shortages that would be alleviated in part by the new legislation. Already in the midst of a teacher shortage crisis, the state’s teacher vacancies nearly doubled during the pandemic. As of 2021, South Carolina had the fourth-highest nursing shortage in the nation. The need for social workers, in particular bilingual ones, is projected to increase drastically in the next decade.

The needs in Beaufort County, whose population has increased by more than 20% in the last decade, mirror those in the state. With better access to educational opportunities at USCB and TCL, among other state institutions, DACA recipients will be more likely to remain in the area, filling critical workforce needs.

The proposed legislative bills are as timely as they are critical. They would greatly improve pathways and certification opportunities for more South Carolinians seeking to educate, care for, and support our increasingly diverse citizenry.

Economic benefits are there too. The COVID economic recovery model has been described as K-shaped. The graph lines depicting already drastic disparities between higher and lower household income levels in the U.S. have widened, exacerbated by increased reliance on digital technologies and fewer service worker jobs. Providing more opportunities for individuals previously unable to participate fully in the labor force will help to lessen these disparities, and keeping more local talent in state will strengthen and diversify the economy.

Boosted by the effects of the pandemic, the accelerated digital age will require an increasingly educated and skilled workforce. Conversely, there will be fewer opportunities for low-skill workers as these types of jobs diminish due to automation and artificial intelligence (AI). Opening educational and professional pathways for DACA recipients will not only increase opportunities for a largely untapped pool of in-state talent, it will knock down barriers for a new wave of talent in a rapidly diversifying and increasingly ambiguous digital economy.

DACA recipients in Beaufort County are set to enjoy access and opportunities similar to those afforded in other parts of the U.S. While having DACA status technically allows citizens to work and to pay taxes, current state laws prevent those things from happening to full effect.

The bills sponsored by Sen. Hutto and Rep. Pickens would open the opportunity door for an important segment of our population. In doing so, the bills would help to fill critical vacancies, elevate the state’s economic viability, and enhance quality of life for South Carolina’s DACA recipients and their communities.

Eric Skipper, Ph.D. is provost and professor of Spanish at the University of South Carolina Beaufort.