Obama's Executive Action on Immigration Historic, but Leaves Many Behind
If you do the math, you will understand why the mood at the Arizona Capitol in downtown Phoenix last night, where activists gathered to watch President Barack Obama's historic immigration speech, was one of resignation, and for some, sadness.
The White House estimates that Obama's much-anticipated executive action will cover more than four million undocumented immigrants in this country, allowing them to live and work free from fear of deportation, in a temporary status that can only be made permanent by an act of Congress.
Obama offering relief for some, though not all, undocumented in the U.S.
The administration's previous executive action on immigration, 2012's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, afforded similar protection for some of the nation's DREAMers, young adults brought to this country by their parents when they were young.
According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which oversees DACA and will oversee the president's new initiative, it has so far approved more than 500,000 DACA applicants.
But there are an estimated 11.3 million undocumented people living in the United States. This means there could be six to seven million undocumented individuals who will not be covered by Obama's executive actions on immigration.
One of those not affected by Obama's executive order is Alin Bocardo's mother.
Bocardo, 14, is a volunteer with Promise Arizona, one of the pro-immigrant groups that has been pushing Obama to "go big" on immigration, and which had sponsored the gathering in front of the state Legislature, where a small audience watched the president's speech on a large screen TV.
Her entire family is undocumented, and she was brought to this country from Mexico 11 years ago.
Her two elder siblings have applied for and received DACA. One is bound for Harvard University. The other has a full scholarship to a university in Texas, and Bocardo herself will be DACA-eligible when she turns 16.
But as Obama explained in his speech, his new "deal" is for undocumented people who have been in the country for more than five years, can pass a criminal background check, are willing to pay their taxes, and, specifically, "have children who are American citizens or legal residents."
It's that last part that Bocardo's mom cannot fulfill. Though her children will be protected from deportation by DACA, they are neither permanent residents nor citizens.
So Bocardo's mom could be placed into deportation proceedings, if she is ever stopped by police and turned over to immigration authorities.
DREAMer Alin Bocardo, at the Capitol last night, after the president's speech
"It's disappointing," Bocardo admitted after watching the president's speech at the Capitol. "We were expecting more. But it's a step forward, and we'll make it step by step."
DREAMers have been the point of the spear when it's come to pushing the administration on what it can do in the face of a Tea Party caucus in the U.S. House that has blocked consideration of a comprehensive immigration reform bill passed by the U.S. Senate in 2013.
DREAMers have challenged Obama at presidential events and engaged in civil disobedience to get their point across, largely in an effort to help their parents.
As pro-DREAMer Phoenix activist Carmen Cornejo, now with the Frontera Fund, told me after the speech, "They were the ones with real skin in the game, the DREAMer moms."
Granted, the DREAMers' parents will not be a priority for a removal by federal authorities, at least according to the broad strokes of Obama's language last night.
"We're going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security," the president told the nation in his address. "Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who's working hard to provide for her kids. We'll prioritize, just like law enforcement does every day."
On the plus side, as part of the president's plan, the administration will lift an arbitrary upper age cap on DACA-applicants, potentially opening DACA up to another 300,000 applicants.
"Under Obama's executive action, the upper age limit is suspended--which means that anyone who was at least 16 when they entered is now eligible, no matter their age today. The date of arrival for eligibility moves from June 15, 2007 to January 1, 2010. DACA will also be available for a renewable three years at a time, instead of the current two years."
Ironically, Obama praised DREAMers in his speech for their courage, likened them to his own children, and said he would meet with some when he travels to Nevada today to promote his initiative and further explain it.
"I've seen the courage of students who, except for the circumstances of their birth, are as American as Malia or Sasha," said Obama, referring to his daughters, "students who bravely come out as undocumented in hopes they could make a difference in the country they love."
Obama's move was a welcome one to the pro-immigrant community in Phoenix, but it engendered mixed responses from Latinos, and the mood, overall, was hardly celebratory.
Speaking to the gathering at the state Capitol, Maricopa County Supervisor-elect Steve Gallardo commended the president's "bold move," but he said the U.S. House still needed to address the immigration reform bill passed by the Senate.
"This is a huge step forward in protecting families," said Gallardo, "from keeping families from being divided. But we are not there yet.
"We still need a vote on a comprehensive bill that will take care of every aspect when nit comes to immigration in this country."
Just west of the Capitol, at the new headquarters for the pro-immigrant group Puente near 19th Avenue and Adams Street, organizer Carlos Garcia agreed that temporary protection from deportation for 4 million people is a huge positive.
"But there is some disappointment in the room," he admitted, as activists and community members discussed the speech they had just watched.
"I feel like this fight was built on the backs of a lot of these people that are not going to qualify," he explained. "The cases we've been fighting for the last couple of years are of people with criminal records, people with previous deportations, the DREAMers and their parents."
Garcia said the pro-immigrant community now has "a road map to victory," that is, something to fight for, such as making permanent what is now a temporary status and working for a more expansive immigration program.
Still, for Garcia's community, Obama's announcement was six years too late in coming, with a record 2 million deportations under the belt of a president elected twice with the overwhelming assistance of American Latinos.
"He could have done this his first day in office," Garcia said, "just like the Democrats could have passed immigration reform when they had control of [both houses] of Congress."
Nearby was immigration attorney and longtime border activist Ray Ybarra Maldonado. He said he was especially concerned by the president's promise to send "additional resources" to a border that's already over-militarized in his opinion.
"It's heartbreaking," he said, "to think [the president] is leaving out millions of people who should be protected by his actions. At the same time, he's going to ruin countless lives by sending more troops down to the border, and by continuing the rhetoric of criminalizing immigrants."
Anyone who pays a visit to southern Arizona soon will be reminded by the near-ubiquitous presence of U.S. Border Patrol personnel and vehicles that the border is already heavily militarized.
Which is one reason, as Obama stated in his speech, "the number of people trying to cross the border illegally is at its lowest level since the 1970s."
And yet, the rhetoric of those slamming the president for his executive action is as extreme as ever, with Republicans threatening everything from shutting down the government to impeachment, though nearly all legal scholars agree his move was both legal and backed by decades of precedent.
"He's going to get smashed by the right even without his ultra-militarization [of the border] and leaving out half of the community," said Maldonado. "So if you're going to get smashed anyway, why not do the right thing for once...and just put it all out there, and let the chips fall where they may?"
This, in essence, has been the conundrum of Obama's presidency: doing things by half-measures -- like the individual mandate for healthcare instead of a single-payer system -- and still receiving the full blast of anger from Republicans as a result.
Leaving those who support the president, as in this instance with his immigration action, with the feeling that if it's less than what they'd hoped for, it's still better than what little they had.
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