RICHMOND, Va. – Even before President Obama finished describing his executive action on immigration, they know, these construction workers, janitors, gardeners, painters and factory workers in a trailer park on the south side of town. Some of them will be left behind. It is the story of their lives. A line is drawn. You’re on one side or the other.
Here, as in close-knit immigrant enclaves across the country, they crowded into living rooms, gathered in factory break rooms, sat in their cars, radios on, listening to the president’s announcement. Here, as elsewhere, this is what they heard: I will protect many of you from deportation, but maybe not your neighbors. I will give some Social Security numbers and leave others to their fake numbers and their cash under the table. Some of you will get driver’s licenses and many of you will make do as you have. The woman with a child born here may be no more deserving than a woman with a child born there or a man with no children, but this is the best I alone can do.
Dividing lines shoot through communities. In the days that have followed Obama’s action, a bittersweet accounting has taken place. In or out. It was that way with the Reagan administration amnesty of the ’80s. It is that way today, although the impact of this president’s action is not nearly as great. Obama drew a line — temporary, conditional, but a line. Several million people will be on one side. Many more millions on the other.
The construction worker in the faded green trailer, the proud man with the cowboy hat that screams Chihuahua and the belt buckle that looks like a pistol but is really a lighter, he’s out. No chance. He has been here 16 years, but he has no kids born in the United States, no kids who have legal residency here. Obama made it clear that only people who have kids with the legal right to be here will get a work permit and temporary protection from deportation.
The Honduran woman with the dimples in the trailer a few spaces over, she’s in. Another easy call. Twelve years in the country, two U.S.-born children, clean record. She cannot wait, she says, to feel the relief of finally holding a driver’s license. No, she says, she never lost hope in the president.
In this neighborhood, the line zigs: Eulogia de Jesus, mother of four young American citizens, 14-year resident of the United States, qualifies.
And it zags: Her husband, with two DUIs — the last of which landed him in immigration detention, where he now sits — probably will not.
It zigs: Tomas Policao, 10 years in the country, father of a 2-year-old citizen, qualifies.
And zags: His younger brother, Bonifacio, eight years in the country, single, living in the bedroom down the hall, does not.
It zigs: Gisela Munguia from Honduras and Freddy Velasquez from El Salvador, here for 12 years and 20 years, and parents of two U.S.- born sons, will qualify. But, wait, Munguia asks: When she left Honduras, she left her 4-year-old son behind. Last year, 11 years after she left, he joined her. He was one of the unaccompanied minors who crossed the border and turned himself in to immigration. Now, he is waiting for a court date. What about him? Munguia asks. What side of the line is he on?
Reactions to the reality of divided paths are always complicated. Ask any undocumented person with siblings or a best friend who is a citizen. Love is generous and glad for the good fortune of others, but not immune to flashes of envy. Joy and relief commingle with disappointment and consternation.
Answer us this, says Luis Alberto Reyna, the man from Chihuahua, and Adrian Granados, from Guanajuato, and Juan Robledo, from Guerrero, who received the Reagan amnesty, but still wonders: How is it that we who have been working in the country for much longer than five years, who did not have children here whose births were subsidized by Medicaid and diets supplemented by food stamps, how is it that we are left out?
“I’ve never taken a government benefit,” Reyna says. “I have no criminal record. I’ve never asked for anything. When my tooth went bad, I pulled it myself.”
“I did the same thing” Granados says. “My molars.”
“Where are we in this?” Reyna goes on. “Nada por mí. Porque haga estas cosas? Yo quisiera saber esto.” Nothing for me. Why do these things? I would really like to know that.
Down the road, Bonifacio Policao, a single and childless factory worker, simply shrugs: It doesn’t really matter to me, he says. I’m glad for my brother.
During Obama’s announcement on Nov. 20, they gathered in living rooms, cheering and giving thanks and wishing it could be the same for more people and that they could apply. Velasquez watched the announcement, heart pounding, struggling to contain himself. The first person he called was his dying 85-year-old mother in El Salvador. Wait for me, he told her, I will be there as soon as I am approved. I am old and I am ready to die, she told him. She passed away two days later.
Still, his overwhelming sentiment, the dominant feeling here, is gratitude and relief. Work permission, they are all certain, will bring with it negotiating power. Higher wages. Money to fix their ancient mobile homes, which have become the focus of city code enforcement.
Already, Eulogia de Jesus is finding the words she will say to her bosses at the factory. “I will tell them I have my papers and that they have to pay me more or I will go someplace else where they will pay me more.”
It is more crucial for her, she says, because it is possible that immigration will not look favorably upon her husband because of his two DUIs and may continue with its deportation proceedings. If he is deported, she says, “it will be devastating. His mistake was drinking and driving; no more. He’s been locked up for a month now and the kids cry for him — but the president’s action will still benefit me and my kids and for them, I have to take the opportunity.”
She pauses, thinking: Will my husband’s situation affect my chances? And, if it doesn’t, will I be able to go back to Guerrero to see my mother? Will she be able to come and see me? I haven’t seen her for 14 years.
The space between the announcement and the application process, which won’t begin until spring, is filled with questions. If I have an outstanding tax bill, will I qualify? If my child’s father and I aren’t married, will we still qualify? If my husband just has one DUI, will he qualify?
In such ways, the strength of the line drawn will be tested.
Robledo, the permanent legal resident, wants to know what a lot of people want to know. Once Obama leaves office, que va a pasar? What is going to happen?
The immigrants started moving into the trailer park about a decade ago. Family followed family until this southern city that defines itself in black and white had sprouted a Spanish-speaking settlement of a few hundred people off a highway dotted by used-auto shops, convenience stores and cheap motels.
This is the life they have made in the United States, temporary or not. Buy a trailer for a few thousand dollars. Pay $430 a month for the space, and pronounce yourself a homeowner. In the late afternoon, on a Sunday before another week of work, when sunlight strikes the American flags lining a neighbor’s fence and the kids are playing soccer and smoke from grilling burgers rises into the air while the hens roam from yard to yard, well, “maybe this isn’t your American dream,” says Reyna, the man from Chihuahua. “But it’s ours, and I still believe that I had to come to this country to get ahead.”