Maria Martinez clutched her 8-year-old son Rene’s hand and fingered her rosary beads, listening intently Thursday night as President Obama announced his plan to shield several million illegal immigrants from deportation.
All around her, people in
the basement room at the CASA de Maryland headquarters in Hyattsville, Md., were clapping and cheering. But Martinez, 33, a housekeeper from El Salvador, was quietly absorbing the magnitude of what had just happened and how it would change her life.
“The fear is over,” Martinez said tearfully. “All I can think about is what I’m going to tell the kids.”
For nine years, Martinez has not seen her two older children, whom she left behind in El Salvador to join her husband in the United States.
Now, the president had just announced that parents of children like Rene, who was born in this country, could apply for a reprieve from deportation. Martinez might finally be able to travel home and return legally to the United States.
Across the Washington region and the nation, illegal immigrants celebrated as the president announced that 3.7 million parents of U.S.-born and resident children as well as 1 million or more undocumented immigrants who arrived as children would have a path to receive work permits, drive and conduct legal transactions.
There were also scenes of
deep disappointment, especially among groups of Latina women known as “dreamer moms,” whose children were among about 600,000 legalized by Obama in a 2012 program but were not included in his new action as grounds for legalizing parents.
“It’s a small bandage for a large wound,” said Maria Reyes, 68, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who lives near Oakland, Calif. She was waiting outside the White House on Thursday evening after fasting there for several days. Although her two children were granted deportation relief through the 2012 “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” program, they will not be able to confer legal status on her.
There were also several million illegal immigrants who never stood a chance of reprieve under Obama’s plan, especially adult men who left their families behind and came to work in the United States illegally. Some Central Americans obtained temporary protection as war refugees, but many could not convert that to permanent legal status, while Mexicans — the great majority of undocumented immigrants — had no such benefit.
Mario Juarez, 40, a painter from Honduras, spent Thursday in a parking lot in Arlington, Va., hoping a contractor would come along in a van to offer him a day’s wages. Around him were a dozen other men in thick jackets and scuffed workboots, many of whom had been working in the United States for years and yet knew they had no hope of deportation relief.
“I’m happy for all those families who will be able to stay together now, but there are a lot of guys like me who came with the same dream. Now we’re being left out,” said Juarez, who has spent the past 12 years working odd construction jobs and sending money back home to his wife and three children.
Nonetheless, the mood in many Latino communities Thursday night was one of enormous relief. People who gathered in churches, nonprofit agencies and social halls to watch the speech cheered, hugged one another and chanted, “Viva Obama” or “Sí, se pudo,” meaning “Yes, he could.”
In Chicago, Doris Aguirre sat in the front row of Lincoln United Methodist Church with her daughter Izaithell, 13, at her feet as they looked up at Obama on the big screen. The president’s words meant that because of Izaithell, a U.S. citizen born in Chicago, her mother has a chance to remain in the country legally after nearly 15 years as an undocumented immigrant.
“I am still trying to process all this, but I am optimistic,” Aguirre said when Obama finished speaking. “I think everything is going to get better for us. I hope I qualify, because I think I deserve it.”
Aguirre came from Honduras in 2000, traveling for 10 days while still breast-feeding her 5-month-old son, Bladimir, now 15 and also an illegal immigrant. She said U.S. Border Patrol agents picked her up in Texas but gave her a bus ticket to Chicago, where she had relatives.
There she met Roberto Aguirre, 68, a Mexican immigrant who had become a U.S. citizen in the 1980s. When they went to apply for a marriage license, they discovered that there was a deportation order outstanding for Aguirre and Bladimir. They have been living in the shadows ever since.
“It’s been so hard. We lost our house, and we lost everything because I have never been able to work and we don’t have enough money,” she said. “But now it’s like everything has changed. It’s like all my dreams have come true. We came here to make a life, and now maybe I can.”
Aguirre said she hoped that she could now apply for a driver’s license, get a job and not be afraid of being deported every time she leaves the house. She said people who think Obama is rewarding lawbreakers don’t understand the misery she faced in Honduras. She says she is only guilty of trying to help her family.
“God bless that law that I broke, because it got me here,” she said. “I will never regret breaking that law.”
In Las Vegas, people gathered at the Hermandad Mexicana Nacional community center to watch the speech. Lorena Palos was there — even though she had originally planned to be at the Latin Grammys, walking the red carpet and hobnobbing with celebrities. She had picked out a pink gown to wear, but put it back in her closet when she heard that Obama would speak Thursday evening.
Palos, 18, was born in Mexico and was granted deferred action two years ago. Her brother is a U.S. citizen, and her parents are undocumented.
“I knew I didn’t want to miss this,” she said. “We’ve been fighting for this for so long. It’s not right to say that I’ll find out about this later for something so big.”
She texted her parents during the speech.
“It’s a weight lifted off our shoulders,” she said. “I don’t think there could be a more historic moment. This is a moment that will live forever in the immigrant community.”
Kevin Sullivan in Chicago and Katie Zezima in Las Vegas contributed to this report.