Immigrants Are Too Wary to Even Learn About Obama's Immigration Plan

Daniel Jimenez
United Farm Workers Foundation outreach worker Daniel Jimenez speaks to attendees at an immigration workshop in the back yard of a home in Hanford, California. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Daniel Jimenez’s job at the United Farm Workers Foundation is to promote the biggest reprieve for undocumented immigrants in a generation to as many as possible. On a recent day, after waiting an hour past the appointed 6 p.m. start, he began speaking to eight tomato-pickers and pistachio-tree planters and a dozen empty chairs.

Jimenez had traveled to Hanford, California, to publicize President Barack Obama’s executive action easing immigration rules. While the order is designed to protect as many as 5 million people from deportation, it pays for no efforts to publicize its benefits. People were wary even before a judge put it on hold.

Sympathetic groups soldier on, trying to rally enough applicants to make the measure politically impossible for a future president to undo.

“It could take months; we really don’t know,” Jimenez, 23, told the Hanford audience in Spanish. “Meanwhile, just be prepared.”

Obama announced the plan in November as a response to Congress’s unwillingness to update a policy that both parties agree is flawed. Recipients would enter the formal economy with work permits and Social Security numbers, creating a legal workforce for businesses, greater security for themselves and revenue for government coffers.

One part of the order that was to begin Feb. 18 would expand a 2012 program for immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. Another part covers people with U.S.-born children and was to start in May.

On Feb. 16, a federal judge in Brownsville, Texas, put the measure on hold after 26 states argued that it was a burden. A White House appeal will be heard April 17 in New Orleans; the case may end at the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the days following the ruling, Obama called leaders of labor and advocacy groups to the White House for a meeting, said Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers.

“He spent an hour and a half with us just talking through the importance of this: We gotta follow through with this work, we can’t abandon it now,” Rodriguez said. “That there’s just too much at stake for people not to take advantage of this program when it gets implemented.”

With Obamacare, states used millions in federal aid for marketing and outreach. They ran television commercials, erected billboards and opened storefront enrollment centers.

For immigrants, however, aid is ad hoc.

Attorneys in Florida train day-care workers to identify parents who might apply. Catholic Charities of Dallas assigns case managers to do weeknight outreach at churches. At Georgia Perimeter College outside Atlanta, students canvas the campus. Michigan United, a coalition of churches, labor and community organizations, has led more than 30 information sessions since December and is translating brochures for a session in Arabic next week.

Bait and Switch

Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington-based group that calls Obama’s order an unfairly granted amnesty, said it’s unethical to ready people for a program he believes higher courts will agree is illegal.

“What is the plan?” he said. “To go back to everybody and tell them, ‘Oh sorry, we were wrong. It didn’t happen?’”

In California, which is home to more than 10 million immigrants, one in four is undocumented, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Many work the fields, far from advocacy groups, pro-bono lawyers and ethnic media in cities like Los Angeles.

Jimenez and his boss, Irma Castillo, go to them.

The pair lead two to three information sessions a week, explaining eligibility and urging people to gather tax filings, bank statements and other documents they’d need to apply.

They log 14-hour days beginning in Bakersfield, crisscrossing an area almost twice the size of New Jersey. Castillo, 60, drives and plays disc jockey -- Argentine jazz and easy-listening piano -- and Jimenez operates the GPS. They pass vineyards and almond groves as flat as the Midwest, but with palms.

Jimenez, who left Mexico at 12 and graduated from California State University-Bakersfield, earns $1,200 a month as one of five outreach workers at the UFW Foundation.

Before heading to Hanford on March 19, he met Juan Barbosa, also 23 and from Mexico, to renew his legal status, enabled by Obama’s 2012 order. When Barbosa asked Jimenez what motivated him, Jimenez said he was legalized by the program, too.

“Wow,” Barbosa said. “So you know where we’re coming from.”

“Exactly,” Jimenez replied. “I know how it feels.”

Living Life

Jimenez and Castillo began the afternoon with a session at a nonprofit in Hanford’s downtown, attracting just three people. One was Erica Montoya, 32, who entered illegally from Mexico in 2005 and lives nearby with her husband. She said their U.S.-born son, Diego, should qualify the couple to stay and that she didn’t fear revealing herself.

“We have to think in this moment, not the future moment,” she said.

The last time Jimenez and Castillo were in this Central Valley town, in January, more than 30 people showed up to hear them. They blame the court ruling for sowing fear and confusion.

Turnout is crucial to the program’s longevity, says Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a Washington group that backs Obama’s action.

“The more people that sign up before a Republican president would take office, the harder it will be for that Republican to take it away,” he said.

The next stop was the home of a Mexican-born owner of a construction business, who’d promised at least 20 people for the 6 p.m. session in his concrete backyard.

An hour later, Jimenez took his place before fewer than half that many. He clicked through slides as he warned against trusting scam-artist “notarios” promising to sign them up for a program that doesn’t yet exist. He talked about driver’s licenses, which the state grants to the undocumented and which could prove identity.

As he spoke, Castillo distributed brochures and an oversized envelope bearing a photograph of UFW President Rodriguez with Obama on one side and a checklist of documents on the other.

A woman asked whether her U.S.-born, 22-year-old daughter would qualify her. A man in an orange shirt questioned whether a domestic-violence accusation would imperil him. A mustachioed man in a cowboy hat listened intently, keeping to himself.

“Every case is different,” Jimenez told them. “Make an appointment and we’ll see what we can do.”

A few more people arrived by the time Jimenez ended under the light of six bare fluorescent bulbs. Four pepperoni pizzas appeared. Jimenez and Castillo headed home.

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