Bay Area immigration activists commended President Obama for addressing immigration in tonight’s State of the Union speech despite the country’s focus on the economy and partisan politics, but some were disappointed the president didn’t take a clearer stand on his next steps.

Job creation and government spending were at the core of Obama’s speech, which included references to America’s crisis of confidence following the Russian launch of the Sputnik rocket in 1957 and challenged the nation to have a new “space race” in the form of innovation, education and infrastructure.

But he also addressed the “thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens,” including those who are the children of undocumented immigrants and did not choose to come to the U.S.

“Let’s stop expelling talented, responsible young people who can staff our research labs, start new businesses and further enrich this nation,” Obama said, apparently in support for the DREAM–Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors–Act.

The bill failed in the Senate last year and would have given some undocumented youth who attend college or join the military a path to permanent citizenship.

Immigration activists in the Bay Area said it was unclear if Obama would even address immigration tonight given the many other issues weighing on the nation.

“We were definitely glad that he mentioned the DREAM Act and the need for (immigration) reform,” said Lisa Chen of the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco. “We’re really hoping there are some concrete next steps that come out of what he said.”

Obama and the Congress seemed determined to strike a bipartisan tone tonight in the wake of the Jan. 8 shooting in Tucson, Ariz., where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was critically injured and six people, including a federal judge, were killed at a political event.

“I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws, and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows,” Obama said.

Eric Quezada, an immigration activist with the nonprofit Dolores St. Community Services in San Francisco, said the president’s words put immigrants in a difficult situation.

“You can’t have it both ways: give us lofty promises while talking about enforcement,” he said.

He said the raids the president was alluding to would be devastating for immigrant families.

And despite the focus on bipartisanship, Quezada said immigration is such a divisive issue that Obama might need to take executive action if he’s going to follow through on his promises to the Latino community. Many have called for a moratorium on deportations of DREAM Act-eligible students and their families.

“We know Republicans are severely divided,” on the issue of immigration, Quezada said. “The most reactionary folks have the upper hand right now.”

He said bills inspired by Arizona’s SB 1070, which requires law enforcement officials to inquire about the immigration status of people they contact and makes it a misdemeanor for a non-citizen to be in the state without carrying registration documents at all times, are being introduced in other states across the country.

“Overall I think this (speech) was about Obama trying to win back the middle on many of these issues,” Quezada said. “For immigrant rights activists, I think it’s important for us to win back the middle as well from the most reactionary rhetoric.”

Janna Brancolini, Bay City News

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