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Viewers React Differently To Obama's Immigration Address


Around the country, groups of immigrants gathered to watch the president's speech. Many were trying to figure out who'd qualify for his three-year work permits and who wouldn't. NPR's John Burnett attended an Obama immigration address party in Austin, Texas, where people reacted with elation and disappointment.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (Through translator speaking Spanish).

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: When the president came to the end of his address, heard here in Spanish on the Univision Network, no one clapped. No one cheered. Inside Austin's Mexitas restaurant, the long tables of immigrants, some of whom had come straight from their construction sites and janitorial crews, were curiously subdued. It's as though the long-awaited announcement was anticlimactic. Or maybe they were just tired, and it hadn't sunk in yet.

GILBERTO GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: This will benefit people who've been here a long time and could not return to Mexico to see their families, says Gilberto Garcia, a remodeling contractor. His two children, who were born as U.S. citizens, qualify him and his wife for temporary permits. They can now visit his home in Tampico, Mexico and hers in Honduras without fear of getting caught when they reenter the United States.

GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: This is really a short time, Garcia continues. We were hoping for more than two years. We were hoping for legalization, but it's better than nothing.

GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: His nephew, 17-year-old Oscar Mendoza, was born in Austin. This means that his parents, a house cleaner and a sheet rocker from Monterrey, Mexico, can enjoy two years without fear of deportation.

OSCAR MENDOZA: When I see them living in the shadows, every single day they've always been - they're worried about - they might get stopped by a cop, might have a license expired or something. There's no peace because they might never know what might come.

BURNETT: Obama said he's directing immigration officials to concentrate on deporting criminals and those who pose a threat to national security rather than immigrants who commit minor offenses. For those laborers who are eligible for work permits, they will be able to obtain a Social Security card and a driver's license. But some who listen to the speech at the Tex-Mex cafe were genuinely disappointed.

JUAN OROZCO: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: I think it's a great thing because it's an improvement on your immigration laws, says Juan Orozco. He's a 28-year-old, unmarried construction worker from Mexico who says he's been in Texas for eight years. But it doesn't go far enough, he adds, because there are many people in my situation, who have a good record - nothing criminal - but who don't have kids. Across town, a 48-year-old Mexican roofer named Juan Belman watched the president's speech in his family's cramped apartment and gave thanks that he won't receive a removal order from immigration court for at least two years.

JUAN BELMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: But Belman is concerned that after the temporary protection is up, he and all the others who qualify will face deportation again. He's translated here by his 21-year-old son, Juan, Jr., who's studying anthropology in college and qualified under the dream act.

JUAN BELMAN, JR.: My dad is excited about this. But after two years, we need to pressure not just Democrats, but Republicans as well, that control the House and the Senate, to pass a bill that would not only benefit a few, but many.

BURNETT: What happens today is that lawyers' offices and immigrant rights centers all over the country will be flooded with calls and visits from noncitizens urgently seeking information about whether they qualify for the president's temporary protected status. Back at the Mexitas restaurant, the speech was scarcely over when a representative from the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition set up a flip chart.



BURNETT: And started writing down what the applicants need to do to come out of the shadows. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 21, 2014 at 12:00 AM EST
In the original version of this report, we said President Obama's executive action would give two-year work permits to some immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally. In fact, the work permits would be for three years.
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.

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