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Obama’s immigration shift prompts cautious optimism, criticism in Elkhart County

The new policy that would let younger illegal immigrants get work permits already has some potential takers in Elkhart County. One undocumented college student says he's cautiously optimistic about the policy, announced by President Obama.

Posted on June 18, 2012 at 1:00 a.m.

ELKHART — Jose, an undocumented immigrant from Elkhart, isn’t going overboard.

The college student and immigrant rights activist says he’s “cautiously optimistic.”

Rosy Meza, an immigration attorney in Elkhart, is “ecstatic” and already receiving requests for legal advice, while Bob Schraymeyer, an illegal immigrant critic from Goshen, is left shaking his head.

“I just don’t think it’s legal,” Schrameyer said.

Friday’s announcement by President Barack Obama that certain illegal immigrants who entered the United States as children will be able to secure work permits seemed to take most everybody here by surprise. But as details about the policy change continue to filter out, it’s generating a not-too-surprising mix of responses here — thumbs up from defenders of immigrant rights and condemnation from foes of illegal immigrants.

Obama’s announcement means perhaps 800,000 to 1 million illegal immigrants 30-years-old or younger will be able to secure two-year, renewable work permits. The permits would let them stay in the United States legally — though not necessarily secure citizenship — and forestall the specter of deportation.

To be eligible, applicants must have come to the United States before they turned 16 and have lived in the United States for five years. They also must be of “good moral character,” meaning no felony convictions, among other things, according to Meza.


Jose, who asked that his last name not be used due to potential backlash from anti-illegal immigrant foes, said he’d likely apply for “deferred action” to halt the specter of deportation and authorization to work, per Friday’s announcement. He crossed into the United States illegally when he was 3, brought to Elkhart from Honduras by his mother, and now attends college in the area.

But the policy shift hardly ends the simmering immigration debate. Jose is a strong proponent of the DREAM Act, a federal proposal that would create a pathway to U.S. citizenship for undocumented immigrant students. He still thinks that plan needs to be passed.

Moreover, he noted new guidelines unveiled by federal immigration officials last year that are seemingly being ignored.

The new rules were designed to put the focus of efforts to corral illegal immigrants on those convicted of violent crimes, not low-key immigrants otherwise obeying U.S. law but for their migratory status. Stats compiled by immigrant activists, however, indicate that the new guidelines are being largely ignored by immigration authorities.

“We’re cautiously optimistic because we’ve heard this before,” Jose said. Depending on who’s elected president in November, he added, Obama’s change “could easily be undone.”


Schrameyer thinks Obama made the policy change just to curry favor — and votes — from Hispanics ahead of November’s general election. He heads an Elkhart County group called Citizens for Immigration Law Enforcement, or CILE, that touts stricter enforcement of laws meant to keep undocumented immigrants out of the country.

“I think he’s doing it for one reason and one reason only,” Schrameyer said.

He questions whether Obama has authority to make such sweeping change and said the new policy undermines the process other immigrants follow to come to the United States legally.

“What happens to the people who are waiting for citizenship now?” Schrameyer said. “We’re opposed to anything like this. It’s backdooring the process.”


Meza, the Elkhart lawyer, said Friday that she started receiving legal inquiries soon after Obama’s news filtered out. She even opened her office special on Saturday to attend to those wanting more information.

“Awesome, awesome, awesome,” she said. “I’m ecstatic.”

The type of undocumented immigrants Obama’s policy change applies to are typically acculturated to the United States and are more tied to this country, even if they were born in Mexico or some other country. “They’re American at heart,” she said.

Yet because of the specter of deportation, they’ve kept largely to the margins. She suspects there are as many as 1,000 undocumented immigrants in Elkhart County who would potentially be eligible for the “hybrid” migratory status allowed under Obama’s change.

“Fear has been a part of their daily lives. It’s something that never really leaves,” she said.

Still, Meza acknowledged there’s a political element to the policy shift. And, like Jose, she said it doesn’t end the immigration debate and could still be reversed, depending on the outcome in November’s presidential vote.

Nevertheless, she sees Friday’s change as a “humanitarian” move and expects excitement to grow in the immigrant community as word of the new policy gets out.

“You know how big this is? How wonderful it is?” she said.

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