David Wallace / The Republic / AP

Relief or tears as Obama’s reforms touch Arizona immigrant families

‘We were really, really hopeful that everyone was going to benefit from this, and unfortunately that’s not the case.’

PHOENIX — Scores of immigrants and their families clapped politely as they watched President Barack Obama unveil long-awaited steps to temporarily shield millions of undocumented parents of U.S.-born children and legal residents from deportation, while others wept for family members and millions more people left out of the immigration policy reforms.

“It’s a huge relief for us, but sad for those who can't apply,” said Leticia Ramirez, 29, a Mexican mother of four U.S.-born children who qualified for relief under the plan Obama set out in a broadcast Thursday night. Ramirez watched the president’s speech with nearly 200 immigrants and their families packed into the offices of immigrants’ rights group Puente Arizona in Phoenix, where sheriff’s deputies have carried out sweeps to arrest the undocumented.

“I used to be afraid of being pulled over by the cops, or my husband not coming back from work, seeing my kids suffer, but now I don’t need to worry,” she added. 

The centerpiece of the plan, watched in silence by the audience of undocumented landscapers, housekeepers, students and their mixed-status sons and daughters, will extend deportation relief to undocumented immigrants who have a U.S. citizen or legal resident child, for three years at a time.

To be eligible, these immigrants must have lived in the United States for at least five years and go through an application process that includes passing a background check and paying taxes. But Obama's executive action left out as many as seven million others who did not qualify. 

Ramirez, an undocumented cake decorator, said she now planned to study and apply for a permit to work legally while raising her children, two boys and two girls who range in age from 1 to 12 years old.

But others who listened to Obama’s speech were left weeping, among them Yadira Garcia, a student born in Mexico who had qualified for the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which shielded young immigrants who had been brought to the United States as children from deportation. 

“It’s bittersweet moment,” said Garcia, as she fought back tears speaking outside the offices. She explained that her housecleaner mother and landscaper father received no benefit under the plan. “We were really, really hopeful that everyone was going to benefit from this and unfortunately that’s not the case.”

‘I had to tell my mom that I don’t think she was going to qualify. Just seeing that expression on her face broke my heart.’

Natally Cruz

Mexican-born DACA beneficiary

Arizona has been at the heart of a bitter national debate over immigration since Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, signed a 2010 crackdown on illegal immigration. It was challenged by the federal government in court, although a judge upheld a key measure allowing police to question people they stop about their immigration status.

Undocumented families in metro Phoenix were also targeted by deputies of hard-line Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in controversial immigration sweeps. A federal judge last year found the lawman — who bills himself as "America's Toughest Sheriff" — violated Latino drivers rights and ordered him to stop using race as a factor in law enforcement decisions and appointed a monitor.

Under Obama’s plan, the DACA program is now being extended to minors who arrived in the U.S. prior to 2010, instead of the prior cutoff of 2007, and eliminates the requirement that beneficiaries be under the age of 31 to qualify.  

But Natally Cruz, 26, a Mexico-born DACA recipient, said she felt like tossing her hard-won work permit after she discovered that her undocumented housekeeper mother, Rosa, did not qualify for the same relief from deportation that she was given.

“I had to tell my mom that I don’t think she was going to qualify, just seeing that expression on her face broke my heart,” she told Al Jazeera at the watch party, as children milled around with their parents.

“I wanted to throw my work permit away, knowing that I can walk out and my mom still has that fear of maybe not returning home. Why should I have this piece of paper that gives me the freedom to be here when my mom doesn’t have it?” she added. 

Undocumented Mexican housewife Maricruz Ramirez, meanwhile, got up to speak to the crowd gathered in the offices, telling them in Spanish, “We lost the battle, but the fight goes on.”

The mother of three DACA recipients who were granted temporary status two years ago, Ramirez started to tear up when she learned that she and her husband would not qualify for relief.

"This leaves even deeper divisions in the community, than before,” said Ramirez, who came to Arizona 13 years ago from her home in the central Mexican state of Hidalgo, so that her children, two daughters and a son now aged 20 to 26, could receive a better education. "Those who had their children here benefit, those that didn't, are left out.”

Still no legal status

Also disappointed was Mexican-born Noemi Romero, 22, whose younger sister is U.S.-born. While the changes would likely benefit her mother, Maria, she was unclear if it would benefit her father, Noe, who was arrested after the family first came to Arizona nearly two decades ago and was deported.

"I am obviously happy for my mom as at least someone in the family will be good, but not happy for my dad because I don't know what will happen to him," she said.

Romero, who was born in Tabasco in eastern Mexico and came to Arizona at the age of 3, was disqualified from DACA after she was arrested by sheriff’s deputies in a raid last year at a supermarket where she worked as a cashier. She was charged with felony criminal impersonation for using false documents. Although the charges were eventually dropped and she was released, she now lives in limbo.

"I have no kind of legal status here,” Romero said. “I don't qualify for anything."

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