Hispanic immigrants in Washington area welcome Obama’s reform efforts


Ricardo Campos, 23, center, and Katya Hernandez, 22, right, cheer as President Obama finishes his speech on immigration. Both of them are “Dreamers” and worked with CASA to pass the in-state tuition bill last year. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
January 29, 2013

After the whoops and cheers greeting President Obama’s speech on immigration reform had died down around him, Mario Sandoval stared pensively into space for a moment. He thought back nearly 30 years to the day he fled war-torn Guatemala, bound for the United States. Then he nodded with satisfaction.

“It has been a long time, but finally our luck is turning,” said Sandoval, 52, a truck driver. “Soon, people will no longer be afraid to go to court. Soon, they will be able to go home and visit their families.”

Sandoval was among more than 100 Hispanic immigrants, many of them working-class refugees from Central America, who crammed into a small conference room at the Casa of Maryland agency in Hyattsville on Tuesday afternoon to watch the president’s speech on TV. They sat in silence, craning to hear every word, and burst into applause when Obama spoke of their right to achieve full American citizenship.

Organizers from the immigrant advocacy group echoed the audience’s excitement over Obama’s far-reaching call for a path to legalization for the country’s 11.1 million undocumented immigrants, which has been bolstered by the overwhelming support for his reelection by Hispanic voters. Similar positive reactions came from a variety of immigrant advocacy groups across the country late Tuesday.

However, the Casa officials also cautioned that any legislative proposals for legalization will face major political hurdles in the coming months, especially from conservative Republicans in the House and their highly vocal grass-roots supporters. As soon as Obama’s speech ended, the organizers called for a nationwide legalization campaign, to be highlighted by a mass rally in Washington on April 10.

In a speech in Las Vegas, President Obama described guidelines for immigration reform a day after a group of senators made their own proposal. White House correspondent David Nakamura discusses the timing of the announcements and the prospects for a deal. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

Kim Propeack, an official with Casa, noted that under the detailed proposal for immigration reform announced Sunday by a bipartisan Senate group, the fate of undocumented immigrants who hope to become legalized will depend on “uncertain future actions,” such as stepped-up border enforcement and employer identification programs.

“We are going to have to really push for this and not let go,” said Ricardo Campos Alfaro, 23, a student from El Salvador and youth leader at Casa, who will now be able to attend college under Obama’s decision to defer deportation for many young undocumented immigrants. “Obama sent us a great and clear message,” he said. “Now we have to help him.”

After Obama’s speech, the audience was full of questions. A middle-aged laborer from El Salvador asked whether people had to have a clean police record and pay their taxes to qualify for legalization. An office cleaner and union organizer from Colombia said she was “happy but a little scared” — worried that students would win legality but that older workers might be “left behind, wondering if the immigration people would come for us.”

But the overall mood was jubilant and determined. Many people in the room promised to skip work and bring their children to the planned rally in April, which will fall on a Wednesday.

“I have amnesty, so I can work and go home to see my family, but this is my battle, too,” said Sandoval, referring to temporary legal protection granted to Central American civil war refugees in past years.

“People had so much doubt before, and they were afraid of being deported,” he said. “Now we must all stand up together.”

Pamela Constable covers issues related to immigration policy, immigrant communities and international figures and issues that crop up in our local and regional midst.
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