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Illegal immigrants hail policy shift, but caution tempers their joy

President Obama's announcement that deportations of those who came to the U.S. as children would end raises hopes, but some see it as an election-year ploy.

June 16, 2012|By Christopher Goffard, Esmeralda Bermudez and Melissa Leu, Los Angeles Times
  • Nancy Guarneros, 25, right, hugs Jorge Gutierrez, 28, as they join more than 150 students and Dream Act supporters who rallied in downtown Los Angeles on Friday to voice support for President Obama's decision to halt the deportation of young illegal immigrants who have no criminal records and meet certain other criteria.
Nancy Guarneros, 25, right, hugs Jorge Gutierrez, 28, as they join more… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

For Julio Salgado and many others, the limbo of being an illegal immigrant — the fear of deportation, the hiding in plain sight, the uncertainties of the underground economy — appeared to vanish abruptly Friday.

"We can exist now in the eyes of the country," said Salgado, 28, a Berkeley artist who got a degree from Cal State Long Beach two years ago but said his status as an undocumented immigrant has forced him to scrape together off-the-books jobs as an illustrator and fast-food worker.

"I've always wanted to do illustrations for Spin magazine or Rolling Stone. Maybe now I can openly do that," said Salgado, whose family came to California from Mexico when he was 11 and overstayed their visa because his little sister needed a kidney transplant. "The fact that we have an option that we didn't before, it's priceless."

While many cheered the Obama administration's announcement Friday that a class of young illegal immigrants would be allowed to stay and apply for work permits, some saw it as the political gamesmanship of a president fighting for a second term. And some said it felt too soon to let down their guard.

Salgado pointed to the White House announcement last year that it would use prosecutorial discretion to grant relief to some illegal immigrants. Yet "every day on my Facebook wall I was looking at all these deportations that were happening," Salgado said.

"We don't want to be used like little political game pieces just to get a vote," he said.

But Friday's news still felt like a historic victory, considering that nearly two decades ago Californians passed Proposition 187, which, had it survived a court challenge, would have denied state benefits and a public education to illegal immigrants.

Jamie Kim, 20, an undocumented student who will be majoring in international studies at a University of California school this year, said she woke up to the news Friday morning and was ecstatic. "I waited for it for so long that it's kind of surreal," she said. "It opens so many doors."

But it wasn't long before anxieties took hold, said Kim, whose parents brought her to the United States from South Korea 10 years ago. Will the order be revoked if Mitt Romney, with his aggressive deportation rhetoric, becomes president?

"I'm so nervous about that. I don't know what to feel," said Kim, who is considering joining the Army or Air Force. "I'm just going to go on like it's a normal day, and when it really happens, I'm going to be celebrating.... If I do get the work permit, it will mean the world to me."

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Friday that the administration would not deport young immigrants who came to the U.S. before age 16 and are not yet 30, provided they meet certain criteria, such as the lack of a serious criminal record.

Maria Gomez, 27, graduated last year from UCLA with a master's in architecture but lacks legal status and has struggled to find work. For years, she has advocated for Dream Act legislation that would create a path to citizenship for immigrants like her who arrived in the U.S. as children.

Having seen it fail in Congress, however, she had grown pessimistic about its chances of passing any time soon.

"This is amazing," she said of Friday's news. "Now all of our lives are changed completely."

John R. Perry, an Encino immigration attorney, said early Friday that his phone had started ringing with questions from clients. "They're asking, 'Do I qualify? What documents do I need?' Probably all of them will ask, 'Is it safe?'"

Perry's response is that another president could revoke the policy change.

But "I'm certainly not going to tell someone to live in the shadows when they have complete protection in front of them," Perry said. "If there were a Romney administration that made such a drastic and punitive move as to start deporting people who had been identified by this executive order, I think there would be an uproar."

Leslye Osegueda, 21, of Westwood, said she has been in the U.S. illegally since she was 5 and is graduating from UCLA with a degree in political science. Because of her status, she didn't know what she would do after graduation.

She said she had heard rumors about a big announcement and checked the Internet at 6:30 Friday morning. The news left her in disbelief. "This is real," she said to herself. "This is finally happening."

Like many, she believes it's a political move by Obama to draw Latino votes, but she thinks Dream Act advocates played a role in making it happen. Now she is speaking confidently of attending law school.

"I am scared of the backlash from anti-immigrant groups," Osegueda said. "But we're ready to face them. We're ready to tell them we're here to do good, to start new businesses, to support the economy. This is our home, and that's why we're fighting."

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