Romina McCandless was born in Argentina in 1983. When she was one-year-old, her parents decided to pursue a better future for the family and took her and her little brother to South Africa. After living eight years there, they immigrated to Hilton Head, South Carolina. Romina has become a passionate healthcare worker and community activist. As a state board member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), she played a key role in the challenge to SB 20 following its passage.
Marina López: What are the things you've done with the ACLU regarding policy changes in South Carolina?
Romina McCandless: When the ACLU is making decisions on which cases it will fight and which it won’t—as part of the board—we offer our opinions. Of course we have to follow the national ACLU lead, so the issues may not always be decided at the state level. But they always ask for our opinions and see what we think before making decisions.
Another thing is that when there are events organized by ACLU, to inform the community, I am to promote them, and try to spread information about rights using information provided by the ACLU. Every time we go to a community event where the ACLU is involved, sometimes I'm embarrassed because I am almost always introduced, "And Romina who is part of the board, and does a lot of work to advocate for the community." I'm embarrassed, I do not know why. But I think for the ACLU, having a person who is representing the Hispanic community is important.
ML: Tell me a little about the people in the state of South Carolina who fought for the rights of Hispanics when the state issued the new law, and the time when this law was challenged at the federal level, tell me about that process.
RM: Well, actually, at first we look for people who were aligned with the values and positions of the ACLU, and typically these are more liberal and less conservative people. But also conservative people, for instance, farmers who have many migrant workers because they feel the importance of migrants here because it is their business. Owners of construction companies, owners of landscaping companies, owners of apartment complexes, owners of trailer parks, owners of dwelling places where many Spanish people live. They also came to support the ACLU to fight the law or try to challenge the law. Pastors and church people, they also went out, and Hispanic persons who were citizens, who were able to vote, also came out.
Organizations such as the NAACP which is an organization that protects and promotes the rights of African Americans. Well, the ACLU tried to align with them because they also went through many of the same experiences the immigrant community is going through in the sixties and fifties, and sometimes even in the seventies, but also with the times of the civil war here in America. They went through a lot of discrimination; in consequence they saw the similarities and many leaders of the African American community also came out to speak in favor of the immigrants. The lesbian community, the LGBT, the homosexual and transgender community also came out for the same thing. They felt there was a lot of discrimination against immigrants, then they also went out and all showed up in front of the court and the lawyers, and testified and tried to present their point of view, writing newspaper articles—I wrote one too. So for example, certain healthcare providers, we talked about how families were being separated for some of these immigration laws. So much support came from various places and the ACLU found those allies. People who agree it is ok for the immigrants to be here, perhaps not amnesty for all, but agree about the importance of an immigration reform bill. And the board was charged with helping to identify these people.
ML: How do you see the impact that DACA had in the community?
RM: The Deferred Action for Students?
ML: For students, for dreamers
RM: Especially for parents who have children here, who came at a young age, it's like it is a great hope. “Now I do not worry that my son could be deported.” “Now I know that my child has the opportunity, we come here for him to be in this country.” "And if I am deported, I do not care because at least I know that my son is in this country and he will have that opportunity.” And it's like a hope, great hope, and many people have seen this as the first step toward immigration reform. And the truth is that we saw many people who came to this country and perhaps did not study, did not finish high school, did not complete the GED. Suddenly we see that many people are starting to look for educational opportunities. That is also good for the country, because if you think about it, if we have more trained, more educated people, that improves the economy. So I think people are starting to have more confidence than they had before. Now the immigration reform, is also like that—I see more—like there's hope.
What I saw before was that people when they spoke, they always spoke with fear, not everybody, but we heard a lot from people saying, “I'm afraid to go out.” “I do not want to drive at night because what if a cop stops me.” “I always try to travel with my children because there is less chance they will send me back.” And the ACLU has had a pretty big impact in this area with all the work done on teaching people about their rights. People now know, “If I do not want to talk with the police, I do not have to. If I go to jail I do not have to sign the papers that they want to force me to sign. I have the right to call a lawyer; I have the right to take these actions.” And of course there are many people who still do not know, but at least the word is beginning to spread in the community. And the community leaders are starting to talk more, now we are seeing a growing strength in the Hispanic community.