“We know what needs to be done,” President Obama said in his State of the Union as he demanded “real reform” from Congress on immigration.
No one knew what needed to be done with greater confidence than the crowd assembled at the Washington Hilton, a few short miles from the Capitol where he delivered his address. Here, hundreds of immigrant day laborers, domestic workers, and hotel workers, many of them undocumented, gathered to watch Obama’s speech after a day of organizing on behalf of reform.
Obama received cheers and whoops as he announced that “the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform.” But they quickly turned to boos, hisses, and even a “Shame on you!” as he pivoted to tougher border security. There were more discontented murmurs as he said undocumented immigrants need to go “to the back of the line” behind legal immigrants to obtain a green card, a system many fear may be too hopelessly damaged to ever make them permanent residents.
“We’re already here!” one attendee shouted.
For the group assembled, the speech was more than political positioning or theater. Many were looking for specific lines that might indicate whether an immigration bill would keep their family together, or allow them to work a job on the books for a change.
Sylvia Lopez made the trip from California, where she’s lived for 22 years cleaning houses in order to support her two daughters. Like many undocumented immigrants, she faces the stress of a split home: her kids are American citizens, but she is not.
“I have to wonder every day what would happen if I were deported,” she told TPM. “We don’t have any other family here to take them.”
Felix Guzman, a day laborer in Staten Island, N.Y., who’s been cleaning up debris from Hurricane Sandy in recent months, has similar fears about his own wife and son.
“If I’m affected, he’ll be too,” he said. “They’ll have to bring him to Mexico.”
Guzman’s and Lopez’s respective lines of work are part of the so-called “shadow economy,” an informal network of low-wage jobs often performed off the books that an immigration bill is supposed to help bring into the light. While most of their industries are not unionized, many workers belong to advocacy organizations like the National Day Labor Organizing Network or the National Domestic Worker Alliance, who helped bring them to Washington this week to lobby for immigration reform that included labor protections.
Guzman was hoping for a clear indication from the president in his speech that people like him who worked in often sparsely regulated jobs would be included in any legalization program. He’s been in the United States 13 years, but some past drafts of immigration reform legislation would require undocumented immigrants to prove they’ve been continuously employed for a certain period - a tall task for someone working odd jobs that employers are often loathe to acknowledge.
“I can’t prove I’ve worked for one year, two years,” Guzman said. “I hope he recognizes the work of day laborers and I hope he recognizes our work in Sandy. We were the first there - not the police, not the army.”
The fear that some undocumented workers will be left behind in any reform bill bothered Lopez, too, as she listened to the president talk up the importance of bringing in engineers and scientists from abroad.
“It made me angry,” she said. “I don’t have a doctorate or an advanced degree and I feel like I’m being excluded. But we low wage workers are the ones holding up the economy.”
The immigrants in the room were well aware that the current reform push is likely the best chance they’ll have, short term or long term, to secure a path to citizenship, or at least legal status that would allow them to work in the open. Whether motivated by raw politics or genuine interest in their condition, all eyes in both parties are on their community. Michelle Obama brought young undocumented immigrants, often referred to as DREAMers, as her guests to the State of the Union, as did several Democrats. And Republicans, even as they grapple with how far they’re willing to go on immigration reform, dispatched their most promising Latino politician, Marco Rubio, to deliver their response to President Obama. If they can’t get what they want in a comprehensive bill now, it will be tough to go back to it later.
“It’s going to happen soon, but we have no idea exactly what it is that’s going to happen,” Martin Unzueta, a labor organizer for immigrant workers in Chicago, told TPM. “Obama’s speech hasn’t changed in ten years, it’s the same speech Bush gave to us.”
This urgency could be felt after Obama’s address as attendees walked up to activist Jose Antonio Vargas, the nation’s most famous undocumented immigrant, ahead of his scheduled testimony before the Senate on Wednesday. Everyone wanted him to emphasize specific points for his big speech - the record number of deportations under Obama, the importance of legalizing low skill workers, including new labor protections for immigrants workers.
“I have 200 people saying you have to include this, you have to include this!” he told one worker. “I have 800 words!”
Vargas said his goal was “to be as aggressively respectful as possible” despite any urges to the contrary.
As for Obama’s speech, Vargas told TPM he still grew annoyed every time the president touted tougher crackdowns on illegal immigration as a core feature of reform.
“I don’t understand why he always has to go to border security,” he said, citing Obama’s record numbers of deportations and a huge reduction in net migration since the 2008 recession.
Of course, there wasn’t much mystery why the president lead with border security. Obama is going to need to win over reluctant Republicans, many of whom have been positioning themselves as the hardest of enforcement hardliners, to pass anything worthwhile. But it still grated, a reminder of the political complexities and obstacles that could wreck a bill.
“Whenever people say border security,” Vargas said, “they mean they want the Mexicans out.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.