Orange County immigration activists reacted with mixed emotions Thursday over President Obama’s announcement that nearly half of America’s undocumented population would become eligible for deferred deportation and legal work status.
“It’s very rough to take it all in,” said Hairo Cortes of OC Immigrant Youth United, noting that some of the coalition’s own members will benefit from the policy while others won’t.
“This was a very hard-fought thing to win,” he added. “We’re very happy for those that will benefit, but this means that our work isn’t over.”
Other advocates echoed Cortes’ mixture of appreciation and disappointment.
“This is bitter sweet,” said advocate Vicki Bravo, in a statement from the Orange County Congregation Community Organization.
“While it will help me and my husband because our son is a U.S. citizen, we have many friends and family that do not qualify. Its hard for us to celebrate when millions more are left without a pathway to citizenship.”
During a speech from the White House, Obama outlined a new policy that could lead to about 4 million undocumented people being protected from deportations for three years.
The new rules, which will be carried out through executive order, focus specifically on undocumented people who are the parents of U.S. citizens. They would have to pass background checks and pay taxes, and would receive Social Security cards, the New York Times reported.
Another 1 million people will “have some protection from deportation through other parts of the president’s plan,” according to the Times.
Few places in the country will be as impacted by the policy as Santa Ana. Nearly half of the city’s residents are foreign born, and of that population almost 70 percent are not U.S. citizens, according to recent data from the Census Bureau.
Such numbers are why Cortes and other activists say Obama should do more to protect undocumented immigrants from deportations.
“The president was gonna get backlash whether he protected one person or he protected all 11 million,” said Cortes. “There’s numerous legal memos and legal analyses that show the president could have gone much further than he actually did.”
Santa Ana-based immigration activists, meanwhile, say that amid the political spin, real-life people are being affected on a daily basis.
“The impact of deportation is separation of families, terrorizing people by keeping them in detention centers. There’s a lot of times LGBTQ people…get placed [in] solitary confinement, and that’s a form of terrorism to a certain degree,” said Luis Ramirez, a member of Orange County Immigrant Youth United.
“It’s literally, you know, creating damage that’s irreversible. Once you deport someone, or once you separate a family, there’s no way you can fix that.”
In an effort to keep the focus on human impacts of deportation, about 20 activists marched from a small park near the federal courthouse to Santa Ana’s city jail on Thursday morning.
The jail houses undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation, under a city contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Along the way, they performed Son Jarocho folk music and carried banners and signs. Among the slogans were “Not 1 More Deportation,” “We Are Not Political Chess Pieces,” “We Are Not Alone” and “Family Unity.”
After arriving at the jail, the musicians continued performing their upbeat songs, leading chants of “Not one more!” and “Si se puede!”
“Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law?” the president asked in his speech.
Obama also announced plans to end the Secure Communities program, in which local police were asked to hold undocumented immigrants they arrested.
As expected, the president’s announcement sparked heated criticism from many Republican members of Congress, who say he is overstepping his legal authority. Some are threatening to withhold funds or even seek to shut down much of the federal government.
“By ignoring the will of the American people, President Obama has cemented his legacy of lawlessness and squandered what little credibility he had left,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement.
A couple of key groups were left out of the president’s expanded policy, Cortes said.
One group is parents of youth in the deferred action for childhood arrivals program, also known as DACA, said Cortes.
Another is the LGBT community, given that criteria based on parenthood “is very exclusionary,” he added.
The immigration reform movement will press on, Cortes said.
“Even though this fell short of what we actually wanted, it wouldn’t have happened in the first place if it had not been for [us] acknowledging that we do have power in organizing and advocating for ourselves,” said Cortes.
“As long as we don’t forget that, we’ll always be in a position to take that next step and win more protections for the rest of our community members. That’s the way to move forward.”