AMBER AMAYA/ Coachella Uninc.
THERMAL — A crowd of 30 eastern Coachella Valley residents gathered at the San Jose Community Center last Thursday night where they watched President Obama, on Spanish-language television, make his long awaited immigration announcement.
In the agricultural east valley, where the vast majority is Latino and there is a sizeable immigrant population, residents were eager to learn the details of the President’s executive order to temporarily shield undocumented immigrants from deportation. The order had been expected for months, although there was only conjecture about how far reaching the protections would be.
After hearing the announcement — it was played twice, back-to-back, to make sure no detail went unnoticed — reactions to the plan were decidedly mixed by those at the community center, many of whom were either personally impacted or have family members who are affected.
During his address, the President explained that his plan would focus on three main objectives: increasing resources for border enforcement, making it easier for high-skilled immigrants to contribute to the economy, and addressing the status of undocumented immigrants who are already living in the United States.
On the third point, President Obama explained that anyone who has lived in the United States for more than five years, has children who are American citizens or legal residents, registers and passes a criminal background check, and pays taxes will be eligible for temporary protection from deportation.
One woman who attended the community screening said that, under the new immigration guidelines, her sister would be eligible to apply for protection. Another woman sitting nearby said she was disappointed — she and her family would not qualify for protection under the expanded rules.
Jacob Fuentes, a senior at Desert Mirage High School, expressed optimism that his relatives, and one of his high school friends, would now be able to work and succeed in the United States.
“I know one of my friends struggles every day with the fact that she is undocumented, with the fact that she can’t apply to certain things, and she is unable to live in the light, so to speak,” said Fuentes. “She is in the shadows all the time.”
Though thousands of eastern Coachella Valley residents will likely qualify for the new deal, many others, especially those working in the agriculture and hospitality industries — the two biggest job sectors in this region — are still not protected from deportation, according to Megan Beaman, a local civil rights lawyer and founder of Beaman Law.
“My opinion is that way too many people of all types were excluded from this announcement, and that this deportation protection doesn’t go far enough, not only for farm workers. Our farm worker population is overwhelmingly immigrant, and is subjected to among the most difficult working and living conditions in the country,” Beaman said. “That said, landscapers, gardeners, housekeepers, construction workers and countless other low-wage, difficult, tiring professions are equally deserving of relief.”
Sergio Carranza, the executive director of Pueblo Unido CDC, said he thought that the President’s announcement was a step in the right direction, but the expanded protections did not go far enough.
“What we need here is a more comprehensive effort,” Carranza said. “We don’t need to wait 10 or 15 years for families to be able to apply to become citizens. We need to start from the get go.”
In his speech, Obama challenged Congress to pass a bipartisan bill in order to create a more permanent legislative solution. And both Beaman and Carranza said a more permanent solution is desperately needed if undocumented immigrants are ever going to see long-term relief.
“The President’s executive actions can be seen as a positive sign of his good will. However, the actions are temporary, they can be revoked by any subsequent president,” Beaman said. “So, while the actions may be a step in the right direction, there is much more work to be done.”
But for now, Fuentes said, the President’s announcement gives people, like his relatives and friends, a chance to come out of hiding and a chance to be treated with dignity.
“I think this reform is what needs to happen, not only for my friend, but for others in the community. So that way they can exit the shadows and present themselves to the world — that way they can be treated as humans.”