At home legally — for now

At home legally — for now

Obama’s order has touched off a new battle, and many wonder what will happen after he leaves

Published on November 27, 2014

By Karen Tumulty


for some, it means that the years of telling lies and keeping secrets are finally coming to an end. For others, nothing will be any different — except perhaps a renewed sense of being left out or left behind.

President Obama’s decision to lift the threat of deportation from nearly 4 million illegal immigrants, arguably his most aggressive use of executive power, has deeply divided the nation.

The latest poll, released Wednesday by CNN/ORC, indicates that the country broadly approves of the result. Of those surveyed, 26 percent said he went too far. Half said he got it right, and 22 percent said they think he should have gone further.

Above: Martha Rios reads with her daughter, Yahaira Pereida, 9, and son, Christian Pereida, 5, at home in Columbia, Mo. Rios is one of the illegal immigrants who will benefit from President Obama’s order. (Catalin Abagiu/For The Washington Post)

The order builds on Obama’s 2012 executive action protecting those whose parents brought them to the country illegally when they were children. It will offer a legal reprieve to parents whose offspring are citizens or living in the country legally.

Where Americans have misgiving, it appears, is in the way Obama went about it. In the CNN/ORC survey, 56 percent said he should not have expanded protection unilaterally, with an executive action that did not give Congress a say in shaping the program. Obama said inaction on Capitol Hill forced his hand.

So he has set off another of the seemingly endless ideological and partisan battles that rage in Washington. And viewed from the perspectives of people who have waited a long time for any action on immigration, there seems to be an arbitrariness to setting policy this way.

That is what a group of Washington Post reporters discovered when they fanned the country to hear the stories of immigrants such as Guadalupe Arreola, who was working under a white tent at a swap meet in North Las Vegas.

Arreola, 50, is originally from Mexico and has spent exactly half of her life in the United States, working as a cook and a house cleaner, among other jobs. Her only child was not born in the United States and is in Mexico, so she will not benefit from Obama’s order.

Is she any less worthy of a break than those who are getting one? “A lot of people living here for years, we are working hard. We are paying taxes. We are not [committing] felonies,” she said.

“I’m very happy because all of our children, all of our young people, they sleep comfortable because they’re not going to be separated from their parents,” Arreola said of Obama’s action. “I feel a little sad because I’m not qualified in this. . . . I’m happy. I’m sad. I’m mad all [at the] same time.”

Politicians have been arguing about who should be allowed to come to the United States, and who should be allowed to stay, almost since the founding of the republic.

The first immigration law — the Naturalization Act of 1790 — was one that set a racist standard. It offered citizenship to any “free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years,” provided he was “a person of good character.”

So conflicted have been the country’s views on the question that in 1886, the year the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in New York Harbor to welcome your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, mobs rioted in Seattle and forced more than half the city’s 350 Chinese residents onto a ship to San Francisco.

Because immigration is driven by human impulse and desperation, not the dictates of statute, unintended consequences will always exist.

The last overhaul of the immigration system was seeded by President Ronald Reagan, who said in a 1984 debate, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here, even though some time back, they may have entered illegally.”

But that leniency, it is now widely agreed, amounted to an invitation for more to come. There were 3 million to 5 million illegal immigrants in this country when the 1986 law was passed. Now, that number is estimated at upwards of 11 million.

The unilateral action of a president — which can be undone by his successor — will not do much to settle the debate about immigration, and indeed, seems certain in the short term to inflame it.

But for millions of people now living in this country illegally — or worried about loved ones who are — the consequences will be profound.

State troopers in McAllen, Tex., patrol the Rio Grande in an effort to catch people attempting to cross the border illegally. (Matthew Busch/For The Washington Post)

So close to Mexico, fear — and hope — run high


By Antonio Olivo

ALAMO, Tex. — Ramona Casas weaves her car around a group of stray dogs and takes stock of a border town gripped by both hope and fear at the prospect of change under President Obama’s new immigration executive action.

That tiny house with the corrugated metal roof where a family of five lives? The parents qualify for temporary legal immigration status under Obama’s plan to offer protection to nearly 4 million people, Casas said.

Those who live in the nearby house that looks like it won’t stand up to a strong wind? They don’t.

Casas is a community organizer who benefited from the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which offered amnesty to some illegal immigrants. “Have you heard about this plan by Obama?” she asked one woman near a corn stand. “You should apply.”

The woman offered a wary smile, hesitated, said she’s considering the idea and walked away.

But Casas worked the streets of Alamo, encouraging everyone she saw to apply.

Maria Sanchez Aleman, 69, said she worries that members of her family who qualify will somehow be ensnared by law enforcement officials. “I’m telling them to be careful,” she said. “To not drive or even go outside.”

In this area along the Rio Grande, a surge of illegal border crossings earlier this year provoked an intense effort by state law enforcement officials to stop the flow. So for many people here, coming into the open to seek temporary protection feels complicated and risky, particularly in a region where emotions are raw over illegal immigration, drug smuggling and other border-related crimes that have made some residents feel as though they’re living under siege.

The president’s plan offers some people the ability to work legally and to obtain a driver’s license. That means there is less to worry about for those who are pulled over by Texas state police or federal Border Patrol agents, illegal immigrants say. But there are no guarantees about what will happen after the next presidential election.

“When Obama leaves, what happens after?” said Norma Cosino, 36, who arrived illegally from Rio Bravo, Mexico, in 2003 and would qualify for protection because her 7-year-old son was born in the United States. “Are they going to deport those people?”

For many illegal immigrants here, living so close to the border with Mexico means that the possibility of deportation runs through virtually every aspect of life. The Rio Grande Valley, which is home to the city of McAllen, is one of the country’s busiest ports for illegal immigration, with about 400 people apprehended each day.

That can fill simple errands with a certain dread, in which well-rehearsed plans in the event of a family separation are quickly repeated whenever anyone connected to law enforcement is nearby, said Maria Perez, 20.

Video: 'Some people don't know the struggles that we go through'

Maria Perez talks about her struggles as a DACA recipient whose parents are undocumented, and how President Obama's executive action on immigration will improve her family's life.
Play Video

“Sometimes when we go to the stores, we see Border Patrol and the first thing that comes to my mom’s mind is to say that if we ever get separated, to take care of my brothers, because I’m the oldest one,” Perez said, crying at the memory. “It’s not a good thing.”

With dreams of becoming a nurse, Perez illustrates the hope for some adults who are considering applying for protected status under the Obama plan.

Two years ago, she qualified for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, another executive action by Obama that has granted temporary protected status to 600,000 people who were brought to the United States illegally as children

Since then, she has become the family breadwinner. Perez said she’s saving money from her job as a teaching assistant to help her parents — who qualify through her brother who is a U.S citizen — with the application fees.

Although she said she is pleased by the possibility of her family’s advancement, Perez also is unnerved by how much others in the area resent the president’s plan.

One school friend’s response to Obama’s announcement was to write a social media post that disparaged Mexicans, Perez said.

“When I saw that reaction that he put on Facebook, I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ ” she said.

One answer is that many people in the area worry that the executive action will lead to another surge in illegal crossings, said Lazaro “Larry” Gallardo, who serves as constable for Anzalduas Park in Hidalgo County.

Located on the banks of the Rio Grande, the county park has been a major crossing point for drug smugglers and, earlier this year, a key destination for adults and unaccompanied children who arrived in droves from Central America.

Recently, as he watched a family fishing from a riverbank before motoring away on a boat, Gallardo voiced the concerns of some Border Patrol agents in the area.

“Is a surge going to start again because maybe people feel like they have another chance?” he said, glancing across the river at Mexico. “We don’t know.”

Photo gallery

A recent executive action on immigration by President Obama has created both fear and hope along the southern border. Click for more photos.

Texas state Rep. Roland Gutierrez (D) played down such concerns.

An immigration lawyer, Gutierrez, who represents the San Antonio area in the House, has been traveling to the Rio Grande Valley to meet with people who may benefit from Obama’s plan.

His law firm held a clinic at a church this week that more than 60 people attended.

“The immigration flow we see today has been going on for years,” Gutierrez said. “This is a good thing. It’s good for the economy and it’s good for getting people into the system so they can pay taxes.”

At the clinic, men wearing work boots and women tending to children they’d brought along shared worries about how they may or may not qualify for protected status. So close to the border, many feared their trips back to Mexico in recent years may hurt them, while others acknowledged that they had returned after being deported.

“As a lawyer, I’m not going to tell you to lie, but if you came in on January 2, 2010, don’t tell your attorney and look for evidence that you arrived in 2009,” Gutierrez said, joking about the cutoff date in the Obama plan. Only half the room laughed.

Martha Rios, who is originally from Mexico, picks up ingredients for dinner at the Los Cuates Latin Store in Columbia, Mo. (Catalin Abagiu/For The Washington Post)

U.S.-born children provide key for parents to remain


By Rick Maese

COLUMBIA, Mo. — The yellow bus pulled away, and 5-year-old Christian sprinted up the driveway, full-speed into his mother’s arms.

“Hey, papa!” Martha Rios said. “How was school? Do you have homework?”

Days after President Obama announced his executive immigration directives, everything felt different for Rios and her two young children, even if the days unfolded in much the same way. Christian watched “The Lego Movie” twice after school. He’s mastering the alphabet, and his favorite book is “Pete the Cat,” in which the protagonist bears a strong resemblance to his own Captain Sparkles. Yahaira, 9, is in acting club, ran a 5k race at school last week and is learning fractions in math.

Video: 'I was born in Mexico . . . but I'm American'

Martha Rios reflects on President Obama's executive action plan on immigration and explains how, as a teenager, her parents told her she was undocumented, changing her future goals forever.
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The kids don’t know what exactly has changed. They were born in the United States. Their mother, however, was born in Mexico. Obama’s executive action allows at least a three-year reprieve from deportation for illegal immigrants with U.S.-born children. For Rios, a 27-year-old hotel worker, that means her fears will subside and opportunities might open up.

“Just being able to have that label taken off you — illegal — that in itself is just a big relief,” Rios said. “Whenever they call you illegal, it makes it sound like you’re a criminal, like you’re doing something horrible.”

She speaks breathlessly about her 2015 to-do list: a Social Security number, a driver’s license, a GED, a better-paying job. She has lived in the United States almost her entire life and soon, she says, she can live like an American.

“Everything that I’ve learned here, I’ll be able to actually use,” she said. “I’m really good with computers, with numbers, with many things — but right now, I can’t even go get a job at Burger King or McDonald’s.”

Today she works at a chain hotel, doing maintenance work and sometimes staffing the front desk. She got the job when the hotel first opened, before it did thorough background checks. She likes her job but earns less than $18,000 per year and lives with a younger sister who helps pay the rent.

Photo gallery

Martha Rios is among those who are eligible for a reprieve from deportation as a result of President Obama’s executive action. Click for more photos.

After hearing so many promises, Rios said she had nearly lost hope in Obama and other political leaders, resigning herself to at least a few more years of waiting and uncertainty and trepidation. She watched the president’s address last week on YouTube, listening carefully to the details to make certain they would cover her. “It doesn’t seem real yet,” she said several days later.

'I’m fighting for the U.S.'

Piñatas hang from the ceiling, religious candles flicker near the cash register and Mexican food fills the shelves of the Los Cuates Latin Store. Christian charges up an aisle to his mother.

“Can me and Yahaira — ”

“Yahaira and I,” Rios corrects him.

“Yahaira and I pick a candy?”

“Okay, but you can’t have it until after dinner.”

Rios fills her basket with corn tortillas, beans and three pounds of carne adovada, a red chili and pork stew, before loading the kids back into her red sedan, the one with the U.S. Soccer sticker on the back. Despite her heritage, Rios has never questioned where her home is. “I’ve always told my parents, ‘If Mexico and the U.S. go to war with each other, I love you, Mom and Dad, but I’m fighting for the U.S.,’ ” she said.

Rios can’t imagine raising her children anywhere else. It was important to her that they be U.S. citizens, so they wouldn’t have to navigate the same roadblocks she has faced — both big (she can’t get a driver’s license and can’t take the test to earn a GED) and small (she tells white lies to friends about why she can’t go to a comedy club that checks IDs at the door or why she can’t drive the shuttle at work).

Rios was born in Lazaro Cardenas, a town on Mexico’s southern coast, and moved to the United States when she was just 2. She didn’t realize she was here illegally until she was in high school. As a junior, she carried a 4.0 grade-point average and was filling out college applications when she asked her parents for her Social Security number. They sat her down and explained everything.

“They’re like, ‘You can’t get a job, you can’t do this, you can’t do that,’ ” Rios recalled. “Up until that point, I never knew the word ‘can’t.’ ”

Rios fell into a depression. By the end of the year, she had dropped out.

“I was like, ‘What’s the whole point? I can’t do [anything] with it.’ Now I regret it, but back then I was thinking, ‘If I’m going to start this kind of life, I might as well start it now,’ ” she said.

At least temporarily, Rios said, the president’s action will provide a sense of comfort and security for her family. “Before this, it was just — you never knew when was going to be your last day here,” she said. “You never knew when you’d be driving to school, get pulled over for a broken taillight and get deported.”

It’s a familiar nightmare. Her two most-recent serious boyfriends were deported. In September, Rios was driving back from St. Louis when an officer pulled her over for speeding. All she could produce was a Mexican passport. She told the officer she had been trying to get a license.

“I told him, ‘I’m trying to fix this. It just takes a while,’ ” she said.

The officer returned to his cruiser and, bracing for arrest, Rios hurriedly passed along instructions to her sister in the passenger seat: Here’s what you do next, here’s what you tell the children, here’s whom you need to call.

The officer returned and gave Rios tickets for speeding and driving without a license, plus a warning that the next officer might not be as understanding.

'It's only temporary'

“Lavate las manos,” Rios told her daughter.

“With soap?” Yahaira asked.

The girl stood next to her mother at the stove, carefully placing corn tortillas on a pan.

“Look for them to bubble,” Rios told her. “That’s how you know it’s time to flip.”

Although there’s relief now, the fear hasn’t disappeared. It has just been pressed farther along the horizon. Rios doesn’t know what will happen when the three-year reprieve expires and Obama is no longer in the White House.

“Will we be able to renew that or suddenly will immigration have this whole list of addresses and we all start getting a knock on the door?” she said. “It’s a great relief now. But it’s only temporary until something actually comes through and fixes it.”

Best friends Sandra Gamez, 23, left, and Natalie Hernandez, 22, who are students at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, were both born in the United States to parents who are illegal immigrants. Hernandez’s father was deported to Mexico in 2011. (Ronda Churchill/For The Washington Post)

News is bittersweet for a family divided


By Katie Zezima

LAS VEGAS — Sandra Gamez, 23, and Natalie Hernandez, 22, have been best friends since elementary school, but it wasn’t until they were in high school that they discovered another common bond: Their parents are illegal immigrants.

“As far as we were concerned, that only meant my parents can’t vote. We really didn’t understand that, like, there was potential danger for them and we could be separated and stuff like that,” Hernandez said.

Both Gamez and Hernandez are eligible to vote. Both were born in the United States; Hernandez in California, Gamez in Nevada, and the result is that under President Obama’s new executive action, they both have undocumented parents who are now eligible for protection from deportation.

Hernandez’s parents came to the United States from Mexico on work permits in the late 1980s and overstayed them. Once, when her mother told her never to mention that her parents were here illegally, “I was, like, ‘What’s the big deal, what’s the big secret?’ ” Hernandez said. “Being so young, I didn’t really understand, and she was, like, ‘No, just don’t mention it to anybody.’ ”

Gamez’s parents also told her not to tell people that they couldn’t vote. Now, when Gamez votes, her parents and sister accompany her to the polling place.

Starting when she was 8, Gamez’s parents would send her to Mexico for a few weeks each summer to visit relatives. She would go alone, accompanied only by a flight attendant.

“It was heartbreaking,” she said.

Hernandez describes her childhood as a “very happy” one in which her parents’ status caused her little concern, until one day in September 2011.

She was on her way to class at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas when her cellphone rang. It was a friend of her mother’s, calling from their workplace: Immigration agents had come to the office and taken Hernandez’s mother to a detention center.

“I just started bawling and I had to pull over, and I called my dad to let him know,” she said. Her father was working as a valet at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas. He answered, but as he was on the phone with her, immigration agents seized him, too.

“I was, like, in shock and I couldn’t even talk,” Hernandez said.

She called Gamez and eventually that night they found her mother, who was released so she could make sure her children were taken care of before she left the country. They didn’t know what had happened to her father. “It wasn’t until, like, the third day that they let us know that he had been deported,” she said.

Hernandez said her father, still wearing his valet uniform — black shorts and a short-sleeve shirt — was flown to the border on a cargo plane and dropped off on the Mexican side. She said some of her older cousins went to the border and gave him money to take a bus to Mexico City. About a week later, she flew to Mexico to give her father his belongings.

“I knew my parents were undocumented, but I didn’t know how great the consequences were of their status. I didn’t realize that they had to live in fear of deportation,” she said. “It’s completely, like, a dehumanizing process that they have to go through,” Hernandez said.

About a month after her father was deported, her mother suffered a stroke. “Blessings come disguised sometimes,” Hernandez said. Her mother, who has mostly recovered, was hospitalized for about three months, which allowed her to receive a temporary medical visa. She cannot work, however, and Hernandez had to cut back on school and take on a full-time job to support her family. She recalled an endless circle of driving — her siblings to school, herself to work, to the hospital and back home.

“You feel a little bad because your parents have such high expectations for you because they went through all of this to give you a better life,” she said of having not graduated from college yet. She is set to do so next year. “I feel like I’m letting them down a little bit.”

She added: “It’s been really hard just seeing my family’s struggles, and again, we never lived with the fear of having that happen to us, to have it ripped away from us and have that constant threat over our heads. It was like a 180 in our life. Usually people get hit really slowly, but mine, it was just like an avalanche.”

President Obama’s speech announcing his executive immigration action was bittersweet, Hernandez said.

“I was really happy. I was sad at the same time, because obviously my dad isn’t going to be able to benefit from it and if he was still in the country, he would benefit,” she said.

Both women said they felt a sense of guilt that they can travel, drive and do other things legally that some of their family members cannot.

“It still crosses my mind, the fact that I can travel anywhere and not be afraid or do certain stuff that my parents can’t do or my sister can’t do,” Gamez said. “They tell me, ‘It’s not your fault.’ Like, don’t be ashamed of the fact that you were born here.”

Gamez’s sister Blanca, 25, is covered under Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals plan. When Gamez turned 21, she petitioned for her father to be able to stay in the country; he received a green card a few months later. Gamez said that she feels privileged because she is a U.S. citizen and that it is a “gift” to be able to help her parents.

Her family is ecstatic about Obama’s action, and takes it personally.

“He did something. He did something like this,” Gamez said. “We had a moment where we all hugged each other and cried. It was just great joy. Even now, we’re like, ‘Woohoo, it’s great.’ Thursday, November 20, will forever go down in the books as one of our happiest days.”

Sergio Olivarez, 58, a day laborer in Silver Spring, Md., who is originally from El Salvador, is unsure whether President Obama’s plan will help him. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Lone men will continue to live, work in shadows


By Pamela Constable

Outside a job center in Hyattsville, Md., on Monday, a Mexican man was reading a newspaper article about illegal immigrants reacting to President Obama’s action to shield about 4 million from deportation. The headline said, “Some laugh, others cry.”

Fernando Jimenez smiled wryly, but he was not laughing. As one of several million men who do not qualify for relief under Obama’s order, his life in the shadows of American society will remain just as it has for the past 11 years.

Back home, Jimenez, 52, was an accountant and a family man. Now he is a part-time gardener living alone in a rented room. In warm weather, he sends $500 a month home — more than he ever earned in Mexico — so his two sons can finish engineering school.

“What the president did means nothing to me,” Jimenez said. “It’s a relief for families and younger people. My kids were all born in my country, so they can’t help me become legal here, but at least I can help them become educated.”

For men like Jimenez across the country, the reality of being left out of the president’s far-reaching action began to sink in this week, even amid the jubilation and relief of Mexican and Central American communities everywhere.

Obama’s order shields parents of children born in the United States and immigrants of all ages who entered the country before they turned 17. But it does not include men living here on their own who arrived illegally as adults, even if they have been in the country for years.

There is no exact estimate of this population, but studies suggest that lone males constitute at least half of the 6 million to 7 million immigrants who will not be covered by the president’s action.

Even among those who meet other criteria, some will not qualify because of their own missteps. Some Central American men were granted temporary legal protection as war refugees, but they didn’t renew their status and are now illegal. Other undocumented workers have histories of legal difficulties or offenses, such as driving without a license or while intoxicated, that are likely to disqualify them.

A far larger number are economic migrants, like Jimenez, who mostly are from Mexico and who came to work and send money home to their families. They can be found in an array of low-level jobs — picking crops in Georgia, washing dishes in Los Angeles and tending lawns in Virginia.

In interviews this week, a dozen such men in various parts of the country expressed disappointment that Obama had left them out, although some said they have relatives who will qualify — cousins with U.S.-born children or nephews who arrived at a younger age.

“It’s good that some people have benefited, but I thought the president would look favorably on people like me, who have been here a long time,” said Edgar Sandoval, 47, a Guatemalan man in New Haven, Conn., who has worked in hotels, factories and restaurants for 25 years.

Sandoval said he has not seen his mother since 1989 and has never met his three grandchildren, but stayed on illegally because the money he earns is critical to his family. If he were living at home, he said, “I’d just be one more burden.”

In rural Georgia, where thousands of illegal immigrants harvest crops, immigrant advocate Adelina Nichols said that only about four of the 18 men who participate in a local labor program could qualify under Obama’s order. Those who won’t either came alone, arrived less than 10 years ago or were older than 17 when they entered the United States.

Adrian Salcedo, 27, is a single Mexican man in Georgia who immigrated in 2005 and picks cucumbers, tomatoes and watermelons. If he had arrived six months sooner, he could have applied for deferred deportation. Instead, he will remain an illegal field hand.

“President Obama has helped millions of parents and children with his order, but I don’t qualify as either one,” Salcedo said, adding that two of his uncles will qualify because they have U.S.-born children. “I’m happy for them, but a lot of us here are single,” he said. “We are also what makes America a success.”

Although brushes with the law have imperiled chances of legalization for some immigrants, others — especially older, longtime residents — said that they have tried to live quietly and that their only crime was entering the country.

“It has been 10 years, and I still walk everywhere to be safe,” said Alejandro Peralta, 54, of Silver Spring, Md., who repairs cars and air conditioning to send money to his wife and children in Guatemala. “A lot of others will be protected now,” he said, “but I’m worried they’re going to start deporting people like me more than ever.”