Here was a detail, Tania Gordillo thought, that could have been lifted directly from her own living room. It was about 10 minutes into the speech on immigration reform President Obama delivered Tuesday afternoon in Las Vegas.
A high-school boy in Nevada, the president had said, “watched his friends come of age, driving around with their new licenses, earning some extra cash from their summer jobs at the mall.” These were things, Mr. Obama said, that the boy couldn’t do because he had been brought illegally by his parents to the United States as a child.
“That is the truth about that,” said Ms. Gordillo, 43, of Corona, Queens. Her two eldest children were born in Ecuador and raised in Queens, without citizenship or a visa. “When they were in school, their friends were taking out driving licenses,” she said.
The Gordillos, a mother, a father and two children, came to the United States in 1993. In 1996 she paid a lawyer $2,500 to file papers for them, but, she says, she was swindled out of the money. Four other children were born in New York, so they were United States citizens by birth. But the other half of the family has searched for a legal way out of limbo. Like the young man cited by the president, the two older Gordillo children have applied to a program created last year by the Obama administration that might give them a path to citizenship.
No place in the country has been shaped by immigrants as much as New York, starting in the 17th century, with the first European, African and Caribbean arrivals, and extending to the end of the 20th century, when another surge of immigrants brought new life to streets where the population had been shrinking for decades. With this history, the twisted lines of immigration policy were vividly drawn in New York.
No wonder, then, that a community center on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, run by Make the Road New York, a civic advocacy group that champions immigrants, was crammed to the walls for Mr. Obama’s speech.
Ms. Gordillo watched as the speech was shown on a big screen, with simultaneous Spanish translation. Not far from her was Yenny Quispe, 21, who was leaning forward to catch every word. “I’ve got to worry about my mother and my little brother,” said Ms. Quispe, a social work student at City College of New York.
Ten days earlier, Ms. Quispe’s mother, Victorina, home after a full day of cleaning houses on Long Island, walked into the kitchen of their home in Jackson Heights. She had plucked one envelope from that day’s mail and thrust it at her daughter.
“Ábrelo,” she instructed. Open it. Maybe this was the letter her daughter had been waiting for.
“It’s too soon,” Ms. Quispe insisted. She had gone only one week earlier to an interview with immigration authorities, part of her application for permanent residency through a program for people under the age of 21 who have left their native countries because of domestic violence.
“Just open it,” her mother said.
Ms. Quispe glanced at the letter. “Then I thought, let me read it again, maybe I didn’t read it right,” she said Tuesday, recalling the moment. No matter how many times she pored over the page, the words in big type across the middle of the page did not change. She turned to her mother and reported, “It says, ‘Welcome to the United States. You have been approved.’ ” Her mother cried out, Ms. Quispe said, kissed and hugged her, wept, and then offered a prayer of thanks at a home religious shrine.
That permission covers only Ms. Quispe. Not leaving all family causes to prayer alone, she and her mother will go to Washington in April to march in support of immigration reform.
With his day for legal status still to come, Antonio Alarcon, 18, a student at LaGuardia Community College, also listened to the Obama speech. His mother, who worked in Queens laundromats, and his father, who reported to the day laborers’ “parada” — parade — on Northern Boulevard by 6 a.m. every day, brought him across the border eight years ago. They had walked for three days and three nights, the last day without water. “We finally got some water after 10 hours, from some Indian people who were selling it along la frontera,” Mr. Alarcon said. His parents returned to Mexico last year.
Any enchantment in Mr. Obama’s words did not move Mr. Alarcon; he saw the politics of necessity building toward reform. “The Latino voters gave the win to Obama,” he said. “I think it’s going to happen.”
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