Restoring Trust

President Obama’s long-awaited move to address the nation’s immigration dilemma helped mend fences with Latinos, but there are lingering frustrations the president did not go far enough to solve the problem.

According to Tomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), this is rooted in activists’ belief that Obama failed to extend provisional legal status to as many undocumented people as he could under his executive authority.“We hope that he recognizes he has the authority to go further and will do so in the future,” Saenz said.

In November, Obama exercised executive action allow the parents of children who are U.S. citizens or residents to apply for a new program that would defer deportation for three years at a time. Applicants must have passed criminal background checks, been in the U.S. for at least five years, and paid their share of taxes. The new deferral program would also allow qualified immigrants to work.

But Saenz said the plan discriminates against Latinos who don’t have children, including the gay and transgendered Latino community: “The president should have based it solely on the length of time lived in this country and community ties. We believe the president’s authority could go further.”

Obama also moved to extend a program he initiated in 2012 called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). It directed the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other federal agencies involved in the apprehension and deportation of the undocumented to practice “prosecutorial discretion” toward those who immigrated to the U.S. as children and were in the country without legal status.

That did not help Katia and Kiara Ruesta, 18-year-old twin sisters from Peru who came with their parents to Connecticut when they were 13 years old. The Ruestas could not apply for DACA because they had entered the country after a 2007 cutoff date. But Obama moved that deadline to January 2010, allowing the sisters, who arrived at the end of 2009, to apply for relief. Katia Ruesta said the president’s actions “give us hope for the future.”

A Gallup poll shows the president’s standing among Latinos rose sharply after he moved on immigration, climbing 12 points, to 64 percent, after the announcement. The same poll showed there is a sharp partisan divide over Obama’s executive actions. Gallup researchers found 70 percent of Democrats approve of the actions and 85 percent of Republicans disapproved.

That fostered GOP attacks on the president’s plan, both in Congress and the courts. A Texas U.S. District Court’s injunction halted the implementation of the expanded DACA provisions a day before the Ruesta twins were able to apply for a change of status, touching off what is expected to be a long legal fight. “I was kind of shocked,” Katia Ruesta said.

But she and others, including Saenz, say they are confident Obama will prevail in the courts. “It’s been challenged under false pretenses and is just a political move,” Saenz said. Their optimism is buttressed by legal scholars who say the president has an edge because the lawsuit challenging his actions was brought by 26 Republican governors, but the federal government has authority over immigration, not the states.

Many documented youth who were brought to the U.S. as children “aged out” of DACA because they are older than 31 on the June 2007 deadline, but Obama abolished the age limit. And now DACA relief, which is renewable, will be granted for three years at a time, instead of two. In all, about four to five million undocumented immigrants in the United States will be able to apply for provisional legal status under the president’s executive actions.

Yet Obama disappointed many immigrants by not extending deferred action to the parents of those who have won temporary legal standing under DACA. Maria Preaeli, 21, an activist with United We Dream, the national organization of Dreamers, said she was “hoping for the best but preparing for the worst” during the months of expectation that led up to Obama’s November announcement.

“It was still heartbreaking,” said Praeli, who came to the United States from Peru when she was five years old. “Knowing all we had done and that only half of us qualified, that does not make us happy.”

Praeli was one of six Dreamers invited to the White House in February to help the president defend his executive actions against GOP critics. “He was aware of our stories,” Praeli said of Obama.  “He said we were great role models.”

The president told her he went as far as he could go, but she doubts that’s true.  Dreamers and other Latino advocates had spent months lobbying the White House, flooding the president with legal arguments that said he could go much further with his authority.

Yet Praeli said the president truly believes in his limitations. She faults his advisors for giving him bad advice.“Everyone wanted more,” she said. “We’re not 100 percent satisfied but it’s a huge step forward.”

Ana Radelat