Original article appeared in the New Yorker
By Vauhini Vara
On Thursday evening, at the San Francisco headquarters of the Service Employees International Union Local 87, some fifty immigrant workers and activists gathered at a hastily organized party to watch Barack Obama’s televised speech about his plans to implement executive actions protecting millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. S.E.I.U. Local 87 represents janitors, many of whom are undocumented. On the walls hung banners that seemed to have been mounted well before this event. One read REUNITE FAMILIES. Another bore the text of the Emma Lazarus sonnet inscribed at the foot of the Statue of Liberty.
“My fellow Americans, tonight I’d like to talk with you about immigration,” Obama began, on a TV screen at the front of the room. Many at the union headquarters, some American and some not, watched with dispassionate, tired expressions, placards with slogans resting against their chests. Some had been working since before sunrise. The room was silent until the President said, of undocumented immigrants, “They work hard, often in tough, low-paying jobs,” at which point a couple of people clapped. A more sustained round of applause came when Obama laid out his plan: “We’re going to offer the following deal: if you’ve been in America for more than five years; if you have children who are American citizens or legal residents; if you register, pass a criminal-background check, and you’re willing to pay your fair share of taxes—you’ll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily without fear of deportation.”
At the end of the speech, a woman in the front row—the one who had been the first to cheer at many of the applause lines—started a chant of “Sí, se puede! Sí, se puede!” She told me later that she was Olga Miranda, the president of Local 87, and that she had helped to organize the party. Miranda has been rallying for years for legislative immigration reform, but she said that, in recent years, with the Obama Administration and Congress failing to pass legislation, people were beginning to doubt whether their efforts would bear fruit. “The movement was starting to flatline,” she said. “There were so many people who were thinking, ‘Why fight?’ ” She felt that while Obama’s planned executive actions were imperfect—they don’t offer a path to citizenship, for example—they might reënergize immigrant activists to keep seeking more aggressive changes.
Much of the coverage of Obama’s actions has described them as far-reaching. Michael D. Shear, of the Times, wrote that the President had “asserted the powers of the Oval Office to reshape the nation’s immigration system.” Indeed, the sheer numbers involved are impressive; altogether, more than four million of the estimated eleven million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are expected to meet the criteria, which would allow them to receive Social Security numbers and work permits and avoid deportation. The notion that Obama’s actions are far-reaching also reflects the messaging coming from both the White House and its political opponents. Since Republicans won control of Congress in early November, Obama has been working to persuade people that he still has some power—by, for instance, striking agreements with China over tariffs and climate change earlier this month—and he himself positioned his immigration move as a powerful executive action. G.O.P. leaders, too, feeling that Obama has overstepped his bounds and hoping to reel him in, have described the executive actions as unusually dramatic.
But, at the union office, people didn’t seem to perceive the announcement as particularly spectacular. California is home to the highest number of undocumented immigrants in the country, by far. Since Obama became President, in 2009, advocates here have been particularly active in lobbying Congress for comprehensive reform that would give immigrants a path to citizenship, and Obama’s announcement, to many of them, seemed like a half step. They were also aware that the measures he singled out in his speech were only one part of a broader plan that also includes new priorities for deportation and stronger border security—aspects that many consider controversial. Rose Cahn, the Soros Justice Fellow at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, told me over the phone on Friday that she was disappointed by the provision in Obama’s plan that would enhance border security; according to the Department of Homeland Security, this includes a decision to “continue the surge of resources that effectively reduced the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border illegally this summer.”
Other lawyers and activists noted the arbitrariness of Obama’s program, in terms of whom it would and wouldn’t cover. What about those who have lived in the U.S. for decades but don’t have children, including many gay and lesbian immigrants? What about parents of children who arrived in the U.S. illegally but have qualified for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which temporarily defers deportations? What about young recent immigrants who fled violence at home?
Last year, the number of deportations from the U.S. reached a record high, of more than four hundred and thirty thousand. Obama’s new first priority, when it comes to deportations, is to remove “threats to national security, border security, and public safety”—felons, for example. But the policy allows for deporting those who arrived in the country after January 1st—a category that includes Luis Fernando Vera, a soft-spoken eighteen-year-old from Mexico who attended the viewing party with his lawyer.
“For me, there’s not going to be any benefit,” Vera told me. He said that he had moved to the U.S. earlier this year after some of his relatives were killed, and he feared for his safety if he had to return. “I haven’t been here for long, and I don’t have children,” Vera said. Not only was he unlikely to benefit from Obama’s executive actions, his lawyer, Nilou Khonsari of Pangea Legal Services in San Francisco, had explained that they could actually be bad for him. “I came here fleeing from violence in Mexico, and now they want to send me back,” Vera told me.
An hour after Obama’s speech began, the party was losing steam. When a man started playing music from speakers, others shouted at him to turn it down. As people began filing out of the room, Khonsari asked Lorena Melgarejo, an organizer at the San Francisco Catholic Archdiocese, how she was feeling.
“Happy and sad,” Melgarejo said.
Khonsari agreed. “It’s a little like one baby is going to live, and the other is going to die.”