Irma Esperanza Lemus was at church Thursday night when President Barack Obama announced new protections that will affect roughly 5 million undocumented immigrants.
After the service, she and her fellow church members watched a rebroadcast of the president’s address on the Spanish-language cable channel Univision. Many cried.
“Some parts were good; some parts were bad,” Lemus said.
Overall, the new protections will benefit fewer than half of the nation’s estimated 11.4 million undocumented immigrants, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute.
Lemus, a housekeeper at a local hotel, learned that, because she has children who are U.S. citizens, she is one of the lucky 5 million. “I feel really happy right now,” she said. “I just wish it could have been something that included everyone.”
Under Obama’s executive orders, Lemus will be able to work legally in the United States and will be protected from deportation for three years.
“It was a relief to hear,” said Lemus, a native of Honduras who was helping her husband pack up their car for a picnic last year when agents for Immigration and Customs Enforcement checked their documents and handcuffed her in front of her children. Since then, she could have been deported at any time.
Most of the people affected by Obama’s executive order are parents who have lived in the United States since Jan. 1, 2010, and whose children are U.S. citizens or lawful residents. Obama also expanded the so-called Dreamers program to say that children who were younger than 16 and who entered the United States by Jan. 1, 2010, also will be protected from deportation temporarily and will be eligible to work legally.
However, there is no “road to citizenship” for anyone involved, and the bar on deportations has a three-year limit.
“It’s only a temporary fix. The only permanent fix can come from Congress,” said migration specialist Susan Weishar, of the Jesuit Social Research Institute. “Nevertheless, it’s a very important step in the right direction.”
Obama also announced plans to beef up border security and revise the list of those who are prioritized for deportation, or “removal,” as it’s formally known. “We’re going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security. Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids,” Obama said in his address.
Yet some locals fear that deportations may be stepped up for all those who are not covered by the new executive orders. In contrast with past guidance, the new priorities issued by the president don’t caution against deporting people if it would cause harm to family members, said Jolene Elberth, an organizer for the Congress of Day Laborers, part of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.
“So those who don’t qualify for relief may now be in more danger,” Elberth said.
Ivan Bardales is an auto mechanic whose family — like Lemus and her family — has been active in the Congress of Day Laborers, which is commonly known to members by its Spanish name, Congreso de Jornaleros. He also has spent the past year worrying about being deported away from his family.
Thursday’s announcement didn’t ease his concerns.
Last year, Bardales’ two teenage children were part of the wave of unaccompanied minors who made a long journey on their own to the United States, fleeing widespread gang violence in their native Honduras. The teens soon found that they liked to go to work with their father, helping with sweeping and doing chores in his auto shop. But 15 days after they arrived, Bardales was driving them home from the shop when ICE agents stopped the car. Bardales was handcuffed and arrested in front of the children.
Last year, when he went to Immigration Court, officials granted him a one-year “stay of removal.” But the stay expired on Thursday, the day of the president’s announcement. And because their children are not citizens, Bardales and his wife, Maria Sabillon, are not eligible for any of the protections the president announced.
Under an immigration reform bill passed last year by the U.S. Senate, which the U.S. House has not voted on, the couple would have qualified solely because of the length of time they’ve lived in the United States. So Sabillon listened to the president’s remarks with mixed emotions.
“As someone who’s been involved in the fight to get the president to take action, who supported the hunger strikes and traveled to Washington, D.C., I feel really proud of this moment,” she said. “At the same time, it was sad for me, because my family was one that did not qualify.”
When Lemus arrived home from church on Thursday, her 10-year-old son Joseph immediately asked if Obama’s announcement would help them. He was elated to hear the answer.
Of her three children, Joseph is the most aware, the most emotional, she said, to the point where he would sometimes cry if anyone even mentioned her situation. Yet she and her husband refused to talk behind his back. “This is the reality that we live. He has to know the reality, good or bad,” she said.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu said she disagrees with the president’s actions on immigration, hoping the latest controversy doesn’t worsen her campaign difficulties.
Landrieu said while she understood frustration with the “broken immigration system,” Obama shouldn’t have taken unilateral action.
But Republicans on Friday were using Obama’s announcement as another point of attack against Landrieu. They see the immigration debate as a way to needle Landrieu and help Republican Bill Cassidy heading into the final stretch before the Dec. 6 runoff election.
State Republican Party Chairman Roger Villere described Cassidy as “a necessary check” on the president in contrast with Landrieu, who Villere called a “rubber stamp” for Obama.