Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

At a SOTU viewing party in L.A., little hope for immigration reform

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Even before tonight's State of the Union address, expectations that President Obama would address immigration issues weren't high. Still, a small crowd of mostly Latino activists, students, blue-collar workers and others gathered to watch it at the downtown office of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, which held a "viewing party" showing the address on a large screen with a simultaneous Spanish translation.

Some were simply curious to hear what Obama might say about immigration; others, including some who were in the same room at the immigrant advocacy office last month watching the Senate vote on the Dream Act, wondered if he might offer them a specific nugget of hope.

Here's the portion of the address that dealt with immigration, from a draft copy of the speech obtained and published by the National Journal (and subsequently by the Huffington Post):

One last point about education. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens. Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet live every day with the threat of deportation. Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities. But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense.

Now, I strongly believe that we should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration. I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows. I know that debate will be difficult and take time. But tonight, let's agree to make that effort. And let's stop expelling talented, responsible young people who can staff our research labs, start new businesses, and further enrich this nation.

Obama then moved on to business and infrastructure. After the address, reactions from the audience at CHIRLA ranged from disappointment to very subtle hope to head-scratching over what sounded like clear support for the Dream Act, minus the name.

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act would have provided conditional legal status for undocumented college students and military hopefuls who were brought into the country as minors under 16. The most recent version of it died in the Senate shortly before Christmas, after securing a victory in the House of Representatives. With the new GOP House leadership embracing enforcement-related measures, many immigrant advocates doubt the bill would stand a chance before 2012.

"It's really disappointing," said Maria Rodriguez, 26, a UC Davis graduate and longtime activist for the Dream Act after Obama's address. "He had the opportunity to address the nation on the issue of immigration, and he really failed to be concrete."

Victoria Francisco, the mother of an 18-year-old community college freshman who is undocumented, said she wavered between a little bit of hope and none.

"I'm in the middle," said Francisco, 43, who said she left her native Mexico fleeing domestic violence, arriving illegally with her then-toddler. "He talked about so many things, but only a little."

Francisco said she has tried everything to adjust her family's status without success and would return to Mexico, but that their prospects would be worse there. Still, she said, her eldest daughter is struggling here, even though she's been here since she was three.

"She is 18 and she wants to work, and she is very disillusioned," Francisco said.

CHIRLA spokesman Jorge-Mario Cabrera said he thought it telling that Obama focused on undocumented students, "but he didn't talk about their parents." A broad reform of the nation's immigration system doesn't appear likely in the near future, but Cabrera said he was more optimistic about a return of the Dream Act, and that there might yet be support from the right.

Several blogs, among them Politico's live blog that ran during the speech, noted that Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain, a onetime advocate of comprehensive immigration reform, applauded after Obama's statement about working with both parties to "protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows."

But after the failure of the Dream Act last month in spite of the support of a Democratic-led House, other proponents tonight said they weren't holding their breath.

"The Dream Act needs to stay alive, but in terms of political viability, I really don't see that," Rodriguez said.