A woman leaves the US Citizenship and Immigration Services offices in New York. (Reuters/Keith Bedford)
President Obama announced his plan for immigration reform yesterday at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, Nevada. The public school opened in 2004, and started what it calls its Newcomer Academy just one year later—a school within a school that provides personalized education for new immigrant students with limited English language proficiency. The high school venue itself reflects the changing demographic of the United States, and many welcomed Obama’s remarks. But, coupled with the so-called Gang of Eight senators’ blueprint for comprehensive immigration reform, Obama’s speech marks a familiar territory for some immigrants who say they can’t count on lawmakers to enact immigration reform.
Nevada remains a top destination for immigrants looking for agricultural and construction work—and more than 7 percent of the state’s residents are undocumented. Las Vegas is also a hub for the gaming industry, always searching for essential workers who clean and clean while vacationers take advantage of the city’s vast entertainment options. In some ways, Del Sol High has accomplished what the federal government has been unable to do for a new generation of young immigrants. It recognizes that these young immigrants exist, and it provides the tools that allow those young people a chance to more meaningfully participate in society.
While Obama announced deferred action for some immigrant youth shortly before last year’s election, the program is only temporary—providing two years of relief, in the hopes that Congress will hammer out legislation that provides a lasting solution before that time is up. Yet when legislators had the chance to pass the DREAM Act as a stand-alone bill in the lame duck session of 2010, they failed to do so. The House managed to push the bill through. The Senate, meanwhile, had fifty-five of the necessary sixty votes to move forward, but five Democrats voted against the bill. Comprehensive immigration reform, which would include the DREAM Act and other immigration measures, has also failed repeatedly in Washington.
So its understandable that while many undocumented immigrants are still hopeful about immigration reform, they’re also very apprehensive. During Obama’s speech to the Democratic Nation Convention last September, I left the convention to join a group of undocumented immigrants who had traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina, on Undocubus. They joined together in the basement of a local church, and watched Obama live on a stream projected from a laptop.
A handmade sign over the projected video asked, “Will you be on the right side of history?” while another read, “No more deportations,” directly below the screen. Rather than record what promised to be enthusiastic support from delegates responding to Obama’s remarks on the stadium floor, I opted to spend time with those people who cannot so much as vote in the country they’ve made their life in, but nevertheless claim a voice in politics. Reflecting on the speech afterward, many commented that they didn’t feel Obama’s message was directed at them. Others worried that they were soon returning to their homes in Arizona, where SB 1070 targets them for deportation because of the color of their skin.