The controversial announcement by President Barack Obama on Thursday, Nov. 20, to use his executive powers to grant nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants a three-year reprieve from deportation may have brought disapproval from his critics, but many people on Palo Alto and East Palo Alto streets said they approve the bold move.
Obama's flexing of executive action, which bypassed House of Representatives gridlock on immigration-reform legislation, is long overdue, said many who were queried by the Weekly on Friday. Patrons at Starbucks, San Mateo Credit Union and Mi Pueblo Market in East Palo Alto and workers and residents in downtown Palo Alto said Obama's action is an act of leadership that they have been expecting since his election.
But some in Silicon Valley and those who represent high tech said Obama's changes are still too weak.
"We think the President missed an opportunity," said Russ Harrison, government relations director for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, USA. "It was all wind up and very little pitch. In the end, he did some small things. It was disappointing."
Obama's executive action will allow undocumented parents of American children or legal residents who have lived in the United States for more than five years to register and undergo a criminal background check. If they pay taxes and pass the background checks, they can apply to stay in the country temporarily without possibility of deportation. Undocumented residents will be able to apply for jobs, but they cannot vote or obtain insurance under the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.
The action would beef up border security and deportation of those who commit crimes.
"Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who's working hard to provide for her kids," Obama said in his speech.
The action will also streamline legal immigration by providing easier work authorization for high-skilled workers awaiting lawful permanent resident status or green cards. The Department of Homeland Security would make regulatory changes to allow these workers to move or change jobs more easily. The action will allow certain H1B spouses employment as long as the spouse has an approved green card application.
The action will streamline immigration for foreign entrepreneurs who meet certain criteria for creating jobs, attracting investment, and generating revenue in the U.S., and it will include income thresholds so that the immigrants are not eligible for welfare or tax credits under the Affordable Care Act.
The changes would streamline and expand programs for foreign students studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics at U.S. universities and reduce family separations for persons awaiting green cards.
The complete list of reform changes can be found here.
Some local residents and workers spoke at length about Obama's action Friday and said they are tired of the congressional stonewalling.
"It's a real act of leadership where somebody has finally gotten off their butt and done something, and I'm not an Obama supporter. But this is a problem we have to solve," said a Stanford alum who did not want to give his name. He voted for Mitt Romney in the last presidential election, he said.
"I hope the Republicans contribute to solving the problem instead of just obfuscating or blocking. It's just time to get on with it," he added.
Obama's plan is a good start, he said.
"He ... proposed something that people have to respond to and I hope that's a constructive response. ... I don't have high hopes," he said of congressional actions.
Ruben Olagues, who also voted for Romney, said, "I like the fact that he will be deporting people who are committing crimes and that are not helping the community -- that aren't contributing to our society."
Olagues, who works at San Mateo Credit Union and has many immigrant customers, also said the action will have a positive impact.
"I think it's a great thing to keep families together, especially in East Palo Alto," he said.
His parents came to the U.S. as immigrants legally and went through the system, he said.
"I wish the system was set up to get status easier," he said.
Lexi Rubio, another credit union employee, agreed.
"I think he did a smart move to push out people who are a 'risk' to the U.S. Now give an opportunity for people who are good for the economy -- especially in our community," she said.
Starbucks customer Michael Mashack said he watched Obama's speech and "knew it was going to be controversial, but it's the right thing to do."
"It's overdue. I don't think he overstepped his bounds. It's good for our country. One of his last statements rings true: 'Pass a bill.' We need to get Congress to quit being selfish," Mashack said.
Mashack said Obama's action is about taking care of family, which Mashack likes.
Several shoppers along University Avenue in Palo Alto also supported Obama's action.
"I think we needed immigration reform. I feel Obama is probably right. At least he made a decision, and everyone criticizes him for not making decisions," Sharika Batra said.
Harrison of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers said Obama's move does not help immigrant entrepreneurs in high-tech and biomedical fields enough.
"Entrepreneurs have an extraordinarily hard time raising capital until they have permanent legal status. You could have to leave the country. The president is not offering a green card," he said.
FWD.us, an advocacy group started by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs for immigration reform, with members including Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, issued a statement on Friday, Nov. 21, calling Obama's action "a crucial step forward."
"We applaud the President for taking critical steps today to fix aspects of our broken immigration system. ... We are encouraged by the President's pledge to continue working to make it easier for entrepreneurs to create American jobs, and help keep the best and the brightest who come from around the world to study at our universities," wrote Todd Schulte, the acting president of FWD.us.
"These actions are no substitute for legislation, which remains the only way forward on the permanent solution to our broken immigration system our country so desperately needs," Schulte wrote.
The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) also said the announcement has shortcomings, but Obama's actions will help prevent unscrupulous employers from using unprotected workers to drive down wages and conditions for all American employees.
"The Administration is operating within its authority to advance the moral and economic interests of our country, and while we stand ready to defend this program, we must also be clear that it is only a first step," the union said in a statement. "Unfortunately, more than half of those who currently lack legal protections will remain vulnerable to wage theft, retaliation, and other forms of exploitation.
"In addition, we are concerned by the President's concession to corporate demands for even greater access to temporary visas that will allow the continued suppression of wages in the tech sector. We will actively engage in the rule-making process to ensure that new workers will be hired based on real labor market need and afforded full rights and protections."
Some undocumented immigrants said they are cautiously happy about Obama's action.
"It's good news for my family. We need a permit to stay here," said a man who was taking his daughter to school. "But my question is, is this another trick, like years ago when he promised immigration reform?"
The action leaves many still in limbo, an elderly woman said.
"It helps people with babies, but I don't have any children, so it doesn't help me," she said.