At the front of a packed room at Denver’s 100 percent De Agave Thursday night, Lupe Santibáñez and her husband Carlos Sepulveda stood perfectly still, arms around each other and wet eyes fixed on one of the half dozen screens that surrounded them. For 15 minutes, President Barack Obama’s voice echoed from every corner of the room — first in delayed Spanish before it was reluctantly changed to English to clarify the audio.
More than 100 activists, immigrants and their families gathered at this Mexican restaurant to hear and celebrate Obama’s sweeping immigration reform announcement that major TV networks decided not to air so as not to interrupt primetime shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Bones. Spanish-language network Univision, however, delayed the Latin Grammys for the President’s 15 minute address, pushing his message out to the nearly five million viewers who tune in each year for the awards show.
Obama’s action is expected to impact some 90,000 undocumented Coloradans with clean criminal records and family members who are U.S. citizens. They will be protected from deportation and able to work legally, at least while the order lasts.
Santibáñez was afforded that security after President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Now her husband, Sepulveda, will likely qualify for the same protection under Obama’s executive actions.
“It feels like it’s come full circle, even though this isn’t as generous as Reagan’s bill,” said Santibáñez, adding that Reagan had what Obama still needs — a Congress that can pass an immigration bill for him to sign.
“It’s really a huge improvement, but we would still like to see full comprehensive reform with a path to citizenship,” agreed Jorge Jimenez, who migrated to the U.S. in 1988 and has four children who are U.S. citizens. Jimenez’s oldest son serves in the U.S. military. His youngest daughter is just eight years old. Both Jimenez and his wife are currently without papers.
“When we go out to work, there is always a chance we won’t come back,” he said. “Living with that fear day to day, that something like that could happen… this action is a big relief.”
If Jimenez and his wife qualify for protection under the order — which they expect — it will bring many changes for their family. They’ll no longer feel they have to notify friends and family every time they go to the grocery store just in case they can’t return and their young children are left alone. Jimenez might be able to get a higher paying job that will allow him buy a car so he doesn’t have to ride a bus two hours each way to the car dealership where he works. And, when he lets himself think about the possibilities, it means Jimenez himself will finally have the opportunity to pursue a classic American dream.
“If I get a social security number I can set up my own company,” he said. “I’ve lived in this country for over 25 years. I’ve worked in construction and in the auto industry. I have the experience to set up my own shop and contribute more to the economy, maybe offer some jobs to my fellow immigrants.”
One thing that won’t change? Paying taxes.
“Since I started living in this country the federal government started issuing ITIN [Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers] to immigrants. I was one of the first ones to get one and since then I’ve paid taxes every year,” said Jimenez. “People say immigrants don’t pay taxes. We pay taxes. We also live here, we buy stuff and pay sales tax. We have responsibilities, too.”
Jimenez sees one of those responsibilities as a political one and Obama’s executive action as a validation of the risks he and other undocumented immigrants have taken by making themselves public faces of the immigration reform movement.
“I’ve been saying I’m undocumented and unafraid. I don’t want to keep living in the shadows and I don’t want what I’m going through, me and my family. I don’t want that to happen to anyone else,” he said. “We’re all human beings and we all have a right to basic human happiness, a right to feel secure in our own homes. That’s why I’m doing this.”
Ana Temu, an organizer for Norther Colorado DREAMers United and a U.S. citizen with family who will benefit from the order, agreed that the movement is just that — a coalition celebrating a big win this week and then continuing to push forward. She noted that many immigrants, including the parents of DREAMers, will not qualify for protection under the executive order and reiterated that comprehensive reform with a path to citizenship is still the goal.
“When I started being politically active there was a man who said ‘Join the movement. I can’t promise all of you papers, but I can promise you won’t be alone,” Temu remembered. “Coming out of the shadows, joining the movement and joining the fight, is the best and surest way to make sure you’re secure in this country. We will keep fighting for you.”
Amid applause for Obama’s speech came a classic cheer in a new context. “Sí se pudo!” shouted someone in the crowd. A phrase typically used at graduations and in the labor movement after a victory for organized workers, the call went out again and again at Thursday’s watch party.
When it comes to translation, Julie Gonzales of the Colorado Latino Forum said the phrase speaks to both the immigrant community’s ability to organize and win the President’s support for executive action and to its support for the President’s authority to take that action.
“Sí se pudo!,” she said. “It’s is a little bit ‘Ya we did’ and a little bit ‘Ya he did.”
[Lupe Santibáñez and her husband Carlos Sepulveda hold hands while watching President Obama layout his executive actions on immigration, which will likely protect Sepulveda from deportation and allow him to work legally.]