Through the eyes of legal immigrants: Obama’s immigration policy shift

Samara Freemark
Reporter
Public Insight Network
Hundreds of new citizens waved American flags after being naturalized at a ceremony in downtown St. Paul, Minn., in August 2010. (Photo by Tim Nelson | MPR)

In a pointed dissent on the Supreme Court’s ruling invalidating parts of Arizona’s 2010 immigration law, Justice Antonin Scalia took a clear swipe at the Obama administration’s much more recent decision to stop deporting many young adults illegally brought into the United States as children.

Scalia said the leaders of the 13 original colonies would have “rushed for the exits” of the Constitutional Convention if they had known the states would be powerless if presidents refused to enforce laws enacted by Congress.

Scalia’s is the latest high-profile reaction to the administration’s immigration announcement last week. The policy change could affect as many as 800,000 young people. (Read a full description of who will be covered here.)

We wondered how legal immigrants are feeling about the announcement. These are folks who (like Scalia’s own father) made their way through the official bureaucratic channels that lead to citizenship: a process that can be exceedingly lengthy, frustrating and expensive. Would these naturalized citizens feel slighted by a new policy that, almost instantaneously, grants a reprieve to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants?

That’s not what we heard from sources in our Public Insight Network. Instead, the immigrants who responded to our questions overwhelmingly praised the new policy — but told us that it doesn’t go far enough.

“They never had a voice.”

Many of those we heard from told us they opposed blanket amnesty for all illegal immigrants – but said that children are different.

Carlos Reyes of Miami immigrated legally to the United States from Honduras at the age of 19.

“Our youth carry the privileges or burdens that their parents bring to them and they never had a voice.”

Cuban-American Nicholas Yanes of Iowa City, Iowa:

“Though I am opposed to illegal immigration [and] I don’t like the idea of anyone being exempt from the law because they have been able to avoid legal detection and prosecution for decades, I understand that this aspect of undocumented immigration is different.”

Jorge Salcedo of Gilbert, Ariz., arrived in the U.S. from Colombia in 1997 on a business visa. It took him and his family 12 years and an estimated $15,000 to become citizens.

“I am not in favor of an amnesty. Immigrating into the U.S. through the back door is illegal, and adults should be held responsible for their illegal actions. But we are talking about children and teenagers that were brought here. Can’t people see the difference?”

Candidates for U.S. citizenship raise their hands to take an oath during a naturalization ceremony in Los Angeles in June 2012. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian | Getty Images)

Candidates for U.S. citizenship raise their hands to take an oath during a naturalization ceremony in Los Angeles in June 2012. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian | Getty Images)

Nashad Muse is a student from Somalia who now lives in Minneapolis:

“I can relate to the desperate need of parents to want a better life for their children. You can’t seriously hold the children responsible for the sin of the parents – it’s just morally wrong.”

“I had become an American”

Immigrants also told us that it was unfair to deport someone back to a country they had left years before.

Helle Berry of Racine, Wis., emigrated from Denmark:

“I moved to the USA as an 8-year-old. I had no choice in the matter, just wanted to ‘go home.’ After five years here, I realized that was unrealistic; I had become an American. These young people had the same choice I had — none — and deserve to be given a path to continue their life here.”

Nora Martinez of Pompano Beach, Fla.:

“Although I came to this country legally, these kids did not have a choice in how they got here. They have made their life here. They’ve gone to school here. In many cases, they may not even speak their native language, or are no longer fluent in it. It makes sense to let them stay here and be productive members of this society.”

“It is not enough…”

But many who wrote to us felt that the new policy was merely a Band Aid – not a true fix for a broken immigration system.

Autar Kaw of Tampa was one of the handful of immigrants who told us that he disagreed with the new policy. Kaw came to the United States from India in 1982, and has been a citizen since 1990. He says:

“I have full empathy for a student who was brought here by illegal immigrants, [but] we are becoming a nation of ‘everything goes.’

“I came to the USA as a student and went through the hard work and legal system to get my citizenship. Amnesty or dream acts will create more amnesty and dream acts in the future.

“Reagan’s [1986] amnesty plan [which granted amnesty to certain undocumented immigrants] did not reduce illegal immigration. So what makes people believe that this will now? … It does not make sense that people can break the law and still become citizens.  If I break the law, I go to prison.”

But most immigrants who responded told us that they wanted the immigration policy to go even further.

“I want the President to know that what he did was good, but it is not enough!” writes Olia Legoshina of Alexandria, Va., who came to the United States on a student visa at 17. Even as a legal immigrant it took her eight years to earn permanent residency, and she says of that time:

“I sacrificed eight years of my life not being able to leave the country because of U.S. immigration laws. …

“From age 22-30 I did not see any of my relatives, except for my mother, who came to the U.S. twice.  I was alone.

“Those were the best years of my life, according to most people, and I ended up spending them completely stressed out 100 percent of the time, because I didn’t have control over my future.

“Those eight years as a very young person were the most terrible and painful so far in my life.”

Members of CASA de Maryland gather in front of the White House to celebrate President Obama's announcement that his administration will no longer deport the children of immigrants who are living in the United States illegally and were brought to the country at a young age. [Photo by Alex Wong | Getty ]

Members of CASA de Maryland gather in front of the White House to celebrate President Obama’s announcement that his administration will no longer deport the children of immigrants who are living in the United States illegally and were brought to the country at a young age. [Photo by Alex Wong | Getty ]


She told us that she didn’t want other young people to suffer that uncertainty. “They need a permanent solution to be able to stay here and be able to contribute and lead productive and healthy lives,” she said. “This ‘up in the air’ feeling is terrible for them and everyone dear to them.”

After living in the United States 18 years — more than half her life – Olia finally became a citizen last September.

Monica Chavez of Chicago is an American citizen. But she’s married to an undocumented immigrant:

“This should not only be for young people, but for all undocumented people with clean records in this country. …

“[My husband and I] live in fear every day of deportation. These are more words from Obama pandering to Hispanic voters instead of doing what he promised, which was to pass immigration reform during his first six months in office. It is too little, too late.“

The new policy will directly affect Julio of Dallas, an undocumented immigrant who doesn’t want his last name used out of fear of deportation.

His parents brought him to the United States 15 years ago, when he was 14. He says the policy is at least a step forward:

“Even though this is not a full law that would give us the full benefits of a resident alien, or a U.S. citizen, it is a step towards solving this critical issue. …

“The dreamers cannot wait for politicians to get their act together. We, ‘the dreamers,’ have goals and ‘dreams’ that cannot come to pass until we can come out of the shadows.

“We have talents, skills and in some cases degrees that can make an impact on sectors of the U.S. economy. The opportunity that Obama brings to us is a step to improve the lives of people in America.”

Tell us your immigration story: Should young immigrants who are living in the country illegally get to stay in the U.S.?

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Samara Freemark Reporter
Public Insight Network

Reporter/producer Samara Freemark joined the Public Insight Network after four years at Radio Diaries in New York City, where she spent her time helping ordinary people tell their extraordinary stories for NPR. In the process, she developed an unshakeable belief in the beauty and power of personal narrative.

Before Radio Diaries Samara worked as an environmental reporter, a posting that took her to sinking islands, Superfund sites, and literal snakepits – Burmese pythons, to be exact. She also churned out copy and tape in the newsroom of WUOM Ann Arbor. Before settling on a career in radio she tried out policy research, community organizing, and urban planning before deciding she preferred soundwaves to spreadsheets.