On the evening of Nov. 20, President Barack Obama took executive action to ease the lives of millions of U.S. workers and residents.
Immigration relief will be provided to parents of children who were born in the U.S. and have lived here for at least five years and pass background checks, and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program will be extended.
In this special reporting package on Obama’s historic action, Voices of NY offers two articles. The first is an account by Gwynne Hogan of reaction from the crowd that watched the president’s address at a “viewing party” held at 32BJ SEIU (Service Workers International Union) headquarters in Manhattan. In the second article, Pamela Granda reports from the Brentwood, Long Island offices of the nonprofit Make The Road NY where people assembled to listen to Obama’s announcement. Finally, check out NY-area reaction on Twitter, curated by Nancy Ayala, in the Storify slideshow at bottom.
As President Barack Obama announced his historic executive order that will pave the path to amnesty for 5 million undocumented immigrants, immigrants and their allies gathered at 32BJ SEIU headquarters in New York City to watch and to celebrate.
The massive room swelled with excited energy and nearly a hundred bodies. Families and friends greeted one another with warm embraces and bright smiles; in an art corner, kids and parents drafted up colorful signs.
Despite the festivities, the moment Obama began his speech a hush engulfed the crowd. Many in the audience had only dreamed of this moment, while others had been fighting for it for years.
“Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law?” Obama asked. “Or are we a nation that gives them a chance to make amends, take responsibility, and give their kids a better future?”
Obama’s executive order may allow almost 5 million undocumented immigrants who’ve lived in the U.S. for at least five years and who have no criminal record to apply for legal work permits.
“I’m so happy that President Obama finally did something that he proposed years ago,” Bismarck Contreras, who attended with his wife and two young sons who are both U.S. citizens. “We have children and we’re paying taxes. It’s time for a change.”
Clarisse Mefotoso Fall came as a representative of the African Hope Committee that advocates for African immigrants.
“This is good for our community. Africans also have a large number of people detained,” she said. “It’s a victory.”
Maria Palaquibay clutched an American flag joyously. She’s lived in Queens for 20 years and her two children are citizens. But because of her legal status she’s been terrified to leave the city.
“[I feel] such happiness,” she said with a wide and radiant smile. “If everything goes right I might be able to visit my parents and my family.”
Some still had damp eyes as they piled into the elevators and headed back to street level. But the cold night and a few angry protesters were quick reminders of the struggles still to come. The clump of dissenters pumped signs that read “Stop the Illegals” and “No Amnesty,” and heckled people entering and exiting the building.
“You should be ashamed,” one woman chanted back at the protesters and channeling Obama’s message from the evening, “We’re all immigrants!”
One protester who’d been saying, “I follow the law,” got under the skin of Robert Blair, who’d attended the viewing party. Blair pushed by the protesters in a huff.
“Slavery was a law, does that make it right?” he asked.
An hour before the president was set to make a historic announcement, energy was high at the offices of Make the Road in Brentwood. As they walked in, community members searched for a seat in front of a large projector, where they would watch and listen to the nation’s commander-in-chief deliver some much-anticipated news.
With 20 minutes left for the broadcast, a tall, lean man took center stage to welcome everyone.
“We’ve been anxiously waiting for this announcement. We’ve been fighting for 11 million undocumented people. What is our ultimate goal?” he asked in Spanish.
“Keep fighting for comprehensive immigration reform,” the crowd responded in unison.
The man was Daniel Altschuler, Long Island Coordinator for Make The Road New York. He further explained that because Congress had not taken action, the president was taking a legal measure to protect millions of undocumented people.
On Long Island, immigrants make up 16 percent of the area’s 7.5 million population. Of those, about one in five immigrants in the Long Island area is estimated to be undocumented, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute. The total number of undocumented immigrants in New York State is 690,000, about 6 percent of the estimated 11.5 million nationwide.
There have been a number of cases in which communities of color, including immigrants, have been systemically targeted by police. Organizations on Long Island like Make the Road have pushed for immigrants’ rights. Most recently, they claimed a victory when Suffolk County officials announced an end to the “Secure Communities” program, which detained immigrants in local jails while they waited to be questioned by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Lucy Castillo, a native of Colombia, is an active Make the Road member who has been part of the organization’s reform efforts. She has been living in Suffolk County since she arrived in the U.S. 13 years ago, and has been undocumented since.
“I feel so happy right now,” she said with a smile. “This is going to bring change to so many families. They’re going to be able to achieve the American dream – buy a house and drive a car without fear of being deported.”
Because she has two American-born children and no criminal record, Castillo would qualify for temporary relief.
When the president finally spoke, the chatter in the room went away. People listened intently. When the connection went away, people took out their cellphones and played the announcement on loud. Seventeen minutes later, there was a roar of applause.
¡Sí se pudo! ¡Sí se pudo!, they chanted.
Assembly member Phil Ramos was present at the event and spoke to the crowd.
“My friends, tonight we won a battle. Today it was 25 percent, and maybe in the next two years the other 75 percent can be won,” he said.
“Five million people living out of the shadows is huge,” he emphasized.
In his speech, the president emphasized that relief would not begin until spring 2015, and urged people to beware of scam artists.
Lawyers agree. Raymond Fassano, an immigration attorney with the firm Youman, Madeo and Fasano, LLP, advises people to demand to see a lawyer’s full credentials before seeking legal advice.
“What we’re going to see is places like churches, law schools, temples, that are all going to come out and say that they can fill out their applications. It’s not enough to have the heart and altruism,” he said.
“With these types of giveaways, anyone thinks they can handle it. Just because it’s free, doesn’t mean they’re qualified.”
At Make The Road, attendees signed up for informational workshops that will start as early as Saturday. There, people will get a description of the political context and implications of the executive action, and will see which programs they are eligible for and if they meet all the requirements. The service fee is $50 for professional review by one of the group’s attorneys.
In the meantime, the group suggests that people begin to gather the same sort of evidence and documentation people provided to demonstrate eligibility for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals).
Nancy Morawetz, clinical professor at NYU School of Law, said that although the president’s executive action may seem bold to some, it’s more modest than what George H. W. Bush did with the family unity provision of the Immigration Act of 1990.
“People need to understand that although today it looks partisan, over history presidential authority has been exercised on a very bipartisan basis,” she added.
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