Politics & Government

Obama's plan offers hope for Triangle immigrants

Mercedes Garcia settles in with her sons Aeneas Gomez, 5, left, and Alan Gomez, 4, to watch news coverage before President Barack Obama’s address laying out his executive plan for immigration reform Thursday.
Mercedes Garcia settles in with her sons Aeneas Gomez, 5, left, and Alan Gomez, 4, to watch news coverage before President Barack Obama’s address laying out his executive plan for immigration reform Thursday. tlong@newsobserver.com

Mercedes Garcia's phone started ringing Wednesday, a whole day before President Barack Obama's prime-time speech on his immigration plan.

The 36-year-old, a native of Mexico, came to this country as a child with her parents. She has gotten married here, given birth to four children here and held numerous jobs here; and she considers Raleigh home.

In the 24 years Garcia has lived in the United States, she has grown weary of looking over her shoulder, constantly worrying that deportation could be just one misstep away.

"If that happened I don't know where I would go," Garcia said. "I don't have any family there. My parents brought me here when I was a child. I don't know anything about Mexico."

Although immigration attorneys expect the finer details of Obama's plan to take months to sort out, Garcia seems to fit the criteria for up to 5 million immigrants in this country illegally who are expected to gain some form of legal status.

After immigrant advocates briefed on the plan revealed Wednesday that it would include work permits and a temporary stay of deportation for those who had lived in the United States for at least five or 10 years and have U.S.-born children, Garcia began hearing from family and friends.

"They were very, very happy," Garcia said. "We have been waiting for years for this."

A similar scene happened at the Durham home of Nelson Villanueva, a native of Argentina who came to the United States in 2000 with his wife and two children on a tourist visa that expired after three months. They ended up staying and had a third child here, a son who is a U.S. citizen.

The Villanuevas have filled out paperwork and tried to gain legal status in the United States, opting to stay for better economic opportunities than are available to them in Argentina.

But in the post-9/11 era, procedures for issuing visas have become more restrictive and rigorous, according to attorneys familiar with the process.

Now Villanueva is celebrating the possibility of gaining temporary legal status that can lead to a work permit, a Social Security number, a driver's license and the other privileges that come with such standing.

Others in the Triangle, though, are not as enamored of Obama's plan or the way he used executive authority to give millions of immigrants who are in the United States illegally the chance to apply for work permits and a temporary reprieve from deportation.

"This really should be done by legislation other than fiat," said Francis X. De Luca, president of the conservative Civitas Institute, based in Raleigh. "This is also going to have a huge impact on the states. You're going to take a large group of people and give them access to government programs and entitlement programs."

Obama has said that immigrants covered by his plan will not be eligible for food stamps or federal health care subsidies.

A report released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center showed that only seven states have more immigrants here illegally than North Carolina, which had 350,000 in 2012, or about 3.6 percent of the population.

That number is expected to grow, with significant economic and political impacts. More than 25 million new Hispanic and Asian voters could join the U.S. electorate by 2020, according to a study released last month by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a bipartisan group advocating immigration reform. That includes as many as 255,000 in North Carolina, a state Obama lost by 92,000 votes in 2012.

With an eye toward the changing electorate and economy, many North Carolinians have listened with interest to the debate over immigration reform.

'Restricted labor pool'

Jim Sears, a Raleigh resident who owns a commercial drywall company, was excited to hear that more work permits would be issued. In recent years, he has had difficulty finding enough workers for his projects, in part, because of laws that require him to verify the residency status of his employees.

"It definitely limits who we can hire," Sears said. "We have a very restricted labor pool."

But he was reluctant to pronounce Obama's plan a remedy.

"Unfortunately, I don't really know enough about the details," Sears said. "We definitely are in favor of immigration reform because of the shortage of workers."

Marty Rosenbluth, a Durham lawyer who specializes in immigration cases, said it probably will take months before the paperwork requirements and other administrative details of Obama's plan are spelled out clearly. He worried that scam artists and people not versed in the laws of this country could take advantage of people.

Several years ago, when Obama offered children in this country illegally an opportunity to legal status, quick-money scammers surfaced in the period after the program was announced and before it actually took effect.

"We are advising people to wait until all the pieces are in place, and to make sure that they are getting help from either an attorney who has immigration law experience or a reputable community-based organization that has ties to good attorneys," Rosenbluth said Thursday.

'An unfolding process'

Dani Moore, director of the Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project at the left-leaning North Carolina Justice Center, met with immigrants and attorneys Thursday as the president made his speech.

"It's going to be an unfolding process," Moore said.

Both Garcia in Raleigh and Villanueva in Durham wait anxiously for the day they can join the ranks of residents with legal status.

Villanueva has had to quit jobs when he could not produce a legitimate driver's license. He has been pulled over while taking his son, an elite soccer player, to play with teams in Alamance County, where the U.S. Justice Department has investigated allegations of racial profiling by the sheriff's department.

They both have heard other North Carolinians complain that immigrants are in this country to take advantage of government services and entitlement programs without contributing their fair share to the community, state and country.

They cast them off as critics who are ill-informed.

"I didn't come here by myself," said Garcia. "My parents brought me. I was a child. We want to work here. We pay taxes. We are not taking jobs from anybody. Really, other people don't want to do the work and work like us."