Shouting in Spanish to a room of more than a 100 people who had packed into Make the Road NY offices in Jackson Heights, a man began the rallying cry that’s become standard for immigration advocates, activists and anyone who has rallied for immigration reform since President Obama took office.
“Obama, escucha, estamos en la lucha,” he screamed. (“Obama, listen, we are in the struggle.”)
New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito who had just walked into the room, smiling from ear to ear, shouted back.
“Today is a day of great happiness, right?” Mark-Viverito said to the crowd which had gathered to watch President Obama’s immigration reform announcement on Thursday night.
Speaking from the West Wing, Obama announced an executive order that will protect 5 million undocumented immigrants from the threat of deportation. The sweeping mandate will give many of them working permits, and extend status relief to people who can pass a background check, have been in the country for five years, and have paid their taxes. Parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents will also be covered under the action.
For Mark-Viverito—a native of Puerto Rico who has made immigration issues a major component of her speakership so far—the night was a high point in what she described as a “very personal struggle,” while adding there was still much work to be done.
“We know that this decision, the action the of the president is extremely important and will give relief to many individuals and many families, but the fight has not ended, we still need Congress to act to give relief to everyone—our friends, our families,” Mark-Viverito said to the crowd before the speech started.
Mark-Viverito also commended Make the Road NY—a grassroots organization which advocates for immigrant rights—for being part of the effort that eventually pushed the president into action.
Before becoming speaker, Mark-Viverito participated in many of their rallies, and took on many of their causes through legislation. As speaker, she hired some of the organization’s top staffers as some of her senior aides.
“You have been consistent in your demands, constant in your actions, you’ve mobilized across this city and we’ve reached this moment because of that effort,” Mark-Viverito said.
She then sat in the front row, flanked by local legislators including Councilman Danny Dromm, Assemblyman Francisco Moya and State Senator Jose Peralta.
As the room zoned in one the single flat screen TVs tuned into the Spanish-language network Telemundo, some clutched the American flag, while others listened and shed tears.
Despite the static TV signal, the mood in the room was jubilant as the president outlined the new policy, chided Congress for refusing to allow a vote on a previous immigration reform bill, and assured the nation that his actions are within his power.
“The actions I’m taking are not only lawful, they’re the kinds of actions taken by every single Republican president and every single Democratic president for the past half century,” Obama said.
Since the White House announced the president would be taking executive action, Republican leaders have criticized Obama for what they say is an abuse of power. G.O.P. leaders have compared him to a monarch rather than a president, and have gone as far as suggesting he should be impeached.
Hours before his speech, soon-to-be U.S. Senate majority leader Mitch McConell said Obama would regret his actions and threatened reaction from Congress.
During his speech, Obama sounded unfazed.
“To those members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: Pass a bill,” Obama said.
Back in Queens, Mark-Viverito said it was the Republicans who were being aggressive and irresponsible.
“We are committed to it,” she said. “This is important for us as communities across this nation. It’s not just a Latino issue—this is an issue that cuts across many communities. This is something that is desperately needed. We understand that this is a reactionary Congress, and those in the Republican party that are extreme that don’t believe that this president has this authority which he does have.”
For Carmela Morales, a resident of Queens with a one-year-old son, Obama’s announcement offered a glimmer of hope to be able to work legally, and perhaps eventually travel to see members of her family.
“We are very happy about what the president said—I hope it’s the beginning of something even bigger,” Morales said, holding her child. “For now, getting the work permit will be the most important. We’ll come out of the shadows because right now there is so much we can’t do.”
With the speech’s end, and the room erupting in applause, the TV cameras turned on Mark-Viverito.
“The action that the president has taken is within his authority,” she said. “It’s an executive action, it’s limited and we understand that. But it’s very much welcome and it’s going to provide relief to close to 5 million people, and that’s not anything to sneeze at.”
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