It’s frigid outside, the wind-whipped sky above New York City so dark that 7 p.m. feels like the middle of the night. But the Queens office of Make the Road New York—a political and social advocacy group focusing on the city’s poor and working-class immigrants—is very much illuminated; by fluorescent lighting, the smell of home-cooked food, and the literal and figurative warmth exuded by more than 100 very excited people.
The crowd, ranging in age from newborns to senior citizens, shedding layers, shaking hands, exchanging hugs, making small talk in Spanish and sporadically breaking out into applause or chants of “Si se peude,” are not gearing up to watch a sporting event on the four televisions and one projector screen around the room. They’re waiting for President Obama to announce his plan to take executive action on immigration reform.
The announcement was not only highly anticipated, but one that many started to fear might never come. After Congress’s failure to pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul bill this summer, which coincided with the dramatic flood of unaccompanied minors across the U.S.-Mexico border, the onus for action had fallen on the president’s shoulders. But even as Obama promised to take action,] it was unclear just how much change he could actually effect on his own.
By the time people started flooding Make the Road’s office in Queens Thursday evening, the gist of Obama’s plan was pretty widely understood. Parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents (a population of approximately 4.1 immigrants) would become eligible for work permits and temporary relief from deportation. The action would open up relief under the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to around 300,000 more immigrants, eliminating the previous limit and extending the final date by which kids 15 and under must have arrived in the U.S. from 2007 to January 2010.
In all, the executive action would provide temporary relief for just under 5 million undocumented immigrants—less than half of the country’s undocumented population. And while the lives of a large portion of those gathered in Queens on Thursday night would not be immediately changed, the excitement was palpable, and not exclusive.
Francisco is one of the people whose life will likely change. The 22-year-old college student has lived in New York since he was 15, coming here from Mexico City with his younger sister five years after their mother immigrated alone to make money for her children. Francisco actually made his journey to the U.S. in 2007, but arrived just a few months after the previous cutoff date to apply for DACA. Thursday night’s announcement trudged up a mix of emotions for Francisco, as the excitement of knowing he might now be able to apply for temporary relief from deportation was met with sadness at the realization that many others in his life would not—including his mother.
“She’s been working her entire life,” Francisco said, as a group of teenagers gathered in a huddle nearby, watching the president’s speech on an smartphone. “She pretty much sacrificed her life for us, my little sister and me. She’s just the best, she’s the one who should benefit.”
Unfortunately, so many immigrants like Francisco’s mother, who’ve spent the majority of their lives in the U.S. working low-paying jobs and living under the radar, will not benefit. At least not yet. Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Labor Organizing Network, which represents one of the most vocal and vulnerable portions of the undocumented community, described the announcement as bittersweet.
“These are the folks who have fought so much for relief, way before everybody else was fighting for it,” Alvarado said of the day-laborer community, much of which is comprised of immigrants whose families still live in their home countries. “There is no doubt in my mind that what happened [Thursday] is an outcome of that fight, of how we’ve made suffering visible. The irony is that some of those people aren’t going to make it because they don’t have U.S. citizen children.”
The limitations of Obama’s action are not discouraging, however, just confirmation that the fight is far from finished.
Following Obama’s speech, the crowd at Make the Road lingered to discuss the real implications of what the president had just said and to exchange words of support and encouragement. After a round of applause and cheers of “Si, se puede,” or, “yes, we can,” the mass of people started to move toward the door and back out onto the cold, dark street.
“It feels good,” Francisco said smiling. “But it’s not enough.”