For Immigrant Activists, Obama Action is Bittersweet

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Her first job in the United States was as a custodian.

She made $4 an hour.

“The minimum wage was $7.10 at the time,” Fatima Rojas says. “I didn’t even know that I was entitled to overtime.”

In the 10 years since Rojas came to the U.S. from Pueblo, Mexico, she has learned English and begun raising two kids, but the undocumented status that kept her from speaking up about her below legal wages remains. She still has to hide, but in less than 3 hours, that can change.

It’s a little bit after 5 p.m., and Rojas is standing outside the Federal courthouse on Church Street in New Haven-the city she has lived in since leaving Mexico-in the blistering cold with about 20 immigration activists from the local Unidad Latina en Accion, (ULA). The group is rallying in front of news television cameras to celebrate-they’re just not completely sure what yet.

At 8 p.m. President Barack Obama will be announcing deportation policy reform expected to alleviate the fear of removal felt by undocumented immigrants across the country. Exactly how many, is not yet clear, but Rojas is cautiously optimistic that she will be one of them.

That’s what she tells reporters, but in the next breath, the hopefulness-of the new possibilities the announcement might mean for her-begins to show itself.

“Just the fact that you can have a car in your own name is huge,” she says. “Just the fact that you can have a social security number is huge. To be asked for your social security number is terrifying because you don’t have one.”

The party has started, but nobody knows how the cake will be sliced. Rojas, as well as the other immigrants-both documented and undocumented-who have gathered with ULA prefer it not be split at all, but at the rally, they are keenly aware of the fact that many-depending on their situation and how they got here-will still be left out.

“It’s mixed feelings because it’s a cake that will be cut in pieces,” Rojas says. “We’re talking about reform that affects not all people working hard here. I’m looking for reform that helps everybody. I have friends, relatives, who are going to continue the way they are.”

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True to Obama’s pre-midterm statements, the executive order to bypass stalled Congressional deliberation and proceed with deportation policy reform is coming after the recent elections that prompted the president to delay action on the matter. His tabling of the move drew criticism from immigrant advocacy groups nationwide who have been campaigning behind the “Not One More Deportation” rallying cry what has served as their indictment of the administration for the removal of 2 million undocumented individuals throughout the Obama presidency.

“We’re here to hear the voices of people who have been fighting for reform,” says Megan Fountain, an organizer with ULA. “Fighting for the freedom of their families in prisons.”

But there will be more deportations, and the absence of Suidy and Jesslym Jimenez serves as a reminder of that. A prison-or more specifically, a Texas immigration detention center-is where their mother, Gladys, spent her last four months in the U.S. She was sent back to her native Guatemala the day before ULA’s rally and the president’s announcement. A couple of weeks ago her request for a stay of deportation was denied.

“We still have so much work to do,” Fountain says.

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It’s a little after 9 p.m. and ULA has already begun doing that. It starts with digesting what the group-20 or so activists and immigrant gathered on sofas and chairs along three walls of a big room in La Casa de Yale on Crown Street-has just heard in the president’s address. Their good news: as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants-parents of those born into U.S. citizenship and youth migrants who arrived before 2010-will be eligible for deferred action, or temporary legal status. The latter were the original beneficiaries of deferred action, but had to have come to the U.S. before 2007. The latest reform also eliminates an age limit.

For ULA, the work begins with the bad news.

“I think I will benefit because I have two children born here,” says Marco Rodriguez during a discussion held after the viewing of Obama’s address. “It’s a good thing for many, but I’m not jumping for joy because there are so many people around me who will not benefit from this.”

One of them is Alva Morales, who fled Guatemala when she and fellow activists were attacked by thugs she believes were hired by a mining company the group has been protesting against. For her, the news is no change from her own status quo: deportation proceedings that will eventually send her and her 2-year old back to the violence they came here to escape. She has no children born here and she arrived two recently to make the 2010 cutoff.

“I was left out,” Morales says, not making eye contact. “I have no hope, but I have to keep fighting.”





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