Many local immigration advocacy groups had positive reactions to President Barack Obama’s immigration reform speech Thursday morning, and some said just the gesture of bringing the topic back into the national spotlight is a step forward.
“People are heartened to see him open-up this conversation again,” said Jon Rodney, spokesman for the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice.
At the same time, Rodney said, the community is ready to see elected officials be bold in their actions, and not just their words.
Rodney was one of a group of roughly 60 people who met at the city’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement office Thursday to show their support for comprehensive immigration reform. A portion of those present at Thursday’s event will be fasting for 24 hours to underscore the need for reasonable reform, Rodney said.
For others, the immigration issues that Obama raised in his speech hit even closer to home.
Rosa Martinez came to the city with her husband and 15-month-old daughter to the U.S. from Mexico 22 years ago for the same reasons that tens of thousands of immigrants come into the country illegally every year: she wanted better opportunities for her children, more job prospects and a shot at the American dream.
Ten years and two U.S.-born children later, Martinez met a lawyer named Walter Pineda who urged her to apply for political asylum for the purpose of seeking permanent legal residency with her husband and daughter, who were also undocumented.
But Pineda, Martinez said, had no case, and had duped herself and at least 50 other illegal immigrants into a common scam. She lost thousands of dollars in legal fees to Pineda, she said, and her family had been exposed to immigration officials as undocumented immigrants.
Pineda was disbarred for his actions in 2006, but Martinez, her husband, and her now 23-year-old Mexican-born daughter still face deportation today. The only thing that could keep them in the country is the possibility of obtaining what’s called a “U Visa” for immigrants who have been victims of crimes.
Martinez owns a small produce store on Market Street that employs 30 people. If she is deported, her 19-year-old son will have to manage the store full-time, and her two other U.S. born children, both 9 years old, will have to live with a relative here.
Mark Silverman, director of Immigration Policy at the city’s Immigrant Legal Resource Center, said Martinez’s story speaks exactly to Obama’s description of the hard-working, tax-paying, law-abiding immigrants who come to the country seeking legal status but are unable to do so because of an increasingly backlogged federal system.
Silverman said that he thought Obama spoke eloquently about why the U.S. needs comprehensive immigration reform, but also said he’s doubtful anything comprehensive will occur in time for November elections.
Silverman was especially impressed that Obama specifically touted the potential of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, which is a piece of proposed federal legislation that would provide an opportunity for permanent legal residency for certain illegal students who graduate from U.S. high schools, arrived in the U.S. as minors, and have been in the U.S. for at least five years prior to the bill’s enactment.
A public opinion survey recently commissioned by a bipartisan advocacy organization called First Focus indicates that 70 percent of Americans today favor the DREAM Act, which is a notable increase from 2004, when a similar poll indicated only 58 percent public support.
Some have criticized the DREAM Act for potentially hindering efforts for comprehensive immigration reform, but Silverman said he thinks it would be a huge step in the right direction.
“To me, it’s an important opening,” Silverman said.
Another piece of legislation Silverman commended was the Humane Enforcement and Legal Protections for Separated Children Act, introduced to congress by Al Franken, D-Minn., and Herb Kohl, D-Wisc., just last week.
If enacted, the bill would, among other things, permit child welfare agencies and local nonprofits to screen detainees to identify parents and at-risk children, allow detainees to arrange care for their children before deportation, protect children during interrogations, and allow parents to participate in family court proceedings.