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Forget Pundits: Immigrants React to Obama's Speech

“A lot of people are using the term bittersweet, but I don’t think that’s enough to describe the amount of emotion I’m feeling right now”

Immigration advocates hug after President Obama made his announcement on executive action,ESTHER Y. LEE

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Love was the strongest emotion felt at a downtown Washington, D.C. office Thursday night as President Obama announced that he would use his executive power to grant deportation relief for millions of undocumented immigrants. At least 50 undocumented immigrants and advocates, many who have been in the immigration fight for years, were scattered at a watch party to view Obama’s speech from a projector. About five million undocumented immigrants are expected to be helped by the executive action. Just as advocates were quick to congratulate immigrants whose family could now come out of the shadows, others also expressed cautious happiness, and even sadness over the family members who were not given deportation cover.

Outlining a few points to address the broken immigration system, Obama welcomed millions of undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows, including the parents of U.S. citizen and lawful permanent resident (LPR) children, as well as undocumented immigrants who have been here for at least five years. Clouding that announcement, however, was the advocates’ knowledge that Obama did not provide deportation cover for the parents of those who came here as children but do not have legal status, known as DREAMers.

His remarks on border security and high-skilled visas were well-received with some cheers. Groans and quiet boos were heard when the president said, “I want to say more about this… issue, because it generates the most passion and controversy. Even as we are a nation of immigrants, we are also a nation of laws. Undocumented workers broke our immigration laws, and I believe that they must be held accountable – especially those who may be dangerous.”

As the makeshift projector cut in and out, Obama’s speech moved some audience members to tears. Deyanira Aldana and her mother Clara Castro were two of those people who expressed strong emotional reactions even before the president said that he would extend deportation relief to parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents.

Deyanira Aldana (left) and her mom Clara Castro  (right) Photo: Esther Y. LeeDeyanira, 20, is a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient and her mom is an undocumented immigrant who crossed into the country 17 years ago. The DACA program has granted temporary legal presence and work authorization to Deyanira. “This is a historic victory for the long battle we’ve been fighting for,” Deyanira told ThinkProgress prior to the speech, indicating that she had heard rumors that the action would potentially not affect her mother. “We’ve been here for a year fighting for our parents. My mom is not a parent of a U.S. citizen child so she will not qualify for administrative relief. It was a tough moment for me to find out that my mom wasn’t qualified… It might not be my mom’s turn, but it’ll eventually be soon. It gives me motivation and drive to help her.”

Deyanira’s mother Clara Castro told ThinkProgress in Spanish, “I was sad because I had hope. We will continue to fight. Just like we won this battle for upcoming years, it’ll be [my] turn to win a battle.”

“A lot of people are using the term bittersweet, but I don’t think that’s enough to describe the amount of emotion I’m feeling right now,” Deyanira said after Obama’s speech ended, voice still quivering because she was processing Obama’s announcement. “Unfortunately my mom didn’t qualify and I didn’t know how to call my brothers and sister and tell them that it wasn’t our turn. I told them to call mom and tell her we love her. I can handle it, but I don’t know how well she’s taking it. It’s heartbreaking.” Other organizers around her hugged one another and chanted, “My family is somebody and they deserve full equality.”

Greisa Martinez, a field organizer with United We DREAM, came to the country when she was two months old and is one of the 16.9 million people to live in mixed-status families. Her siblings are U.S. citizens, a category of individuals whose parents could qualify for executive action. “The first thing is that my mother is undocumented and she has two U.S. citizen daughters so she would stand to benefit,” Greisa said, pointing out that she has already experienced the pain of losing a parent to deportation. “I called her earlier today and there was silence. She took a breath and she was able to breathe a little bit. For that to me — it means everything so it’s worth it. I’m looking forward to the millions of people across the country taking breaths together.”

Immigration advocates Julieta Garibay (left) and Greisa Martinez (right) Photo: Esther Y. LeeAs she walked over to hug another crying advocate Julieta Garibay, Greisa commended the president’s effort to do away with Secure Communities, a federal program that enables local law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration officials when they have a suspected immigrant in custody. Greisa said, “specifically it’s really important to me … my father was deported six years ago because of the Secure Communities program. To know that after tonight and after victory of our community, less families will have to go through that. I think it’s — I want to call it a miracle because it was a lot of work, a lot of people.”

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For her part, Julieta who’s been fighting for immigration reform for the past ten years, was overcome with emotion throughout the watch party. She had aged out of the last DACA iteration, but then went through a complicated marriage, divorce, and a status adjustment. She was there to support her friends and her family, but was disappointed to learn that some of her siblings may not qualify for deportation relief. “Realizing that people who want it, like my brothers and sisters, not all of them made it,” she said. “I know the pain and I feel frozen because you feel so much for this. You tend to be in shock. We’ll make sure that [Obama] will deliver for the rest of the people who didn’t make it.”

Elsewhere around the country, other viewing parties reportedly hosted anywhere between 300 and 850 participants. Soon after President Obama made his announcement, immigration advocates were seen outside the White House holding the American flag and posters that read “Gracias President Obama” while chanting “si se puede,” Yes we can.

Esther Yu-Hsi Lee is the Immigration Reporter for ThinkProgress. She received her B.A. in Psychology and Middle East and Islamic Studies and a M.A. in Psychology from New York University. A Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) beneficiary, Esther is passionate about immigration issues from all sides of the debate. She is also a White House Champion of Change recipient. Esther is originally from Los Angeles, CA. 
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