South Florida

In S. Florida immigrant circles, tears as well as cheers

The televised speech by President Barack Obama brought disappointing news to some South Florida immigrants.
The televised speech by President Barack Obama brought disappointing news to some South Florida immigrants.

Julio Calderon's fate was sealed by just days.

The undocumented immigrant was denied a work permit, a driver’s license — even the right to a passport, all because he had already turned 16 just before coming into this country nearly a decade ago.

On Thursday night, he was left out again.

The 25-year-old hotel cashier who earns minimum wage was among the thousands in Florida who will not be protected from deportation under a plan announced by President Barack Obama.

Like Calderon, many waited hours for the president’s prime-time speech, only to learn at the end of the brief address that they were still subject to being deported as illegal immigrants.

“I’m one of them,” said Calderon, a native of Honduras who attends Florida International University.

The plan by the president to offer protections to roughly five million people — mostly parents of children who are U.S. citizens or legal residents — stirred passions among immigrants in South Florida who have longed for an equitable system that allows them to live without fear of being detained or, worse, deported.

Moments after public viewings of the president’s speech at advocacy centers in Miami-Dade, some hugged and celebrated their new-found relief, while others wiped away tears.

“There were lots of sad people,” said Jonathan Fried, executive director of WeCount, a nonprofit in Homestead. “They’ve made their lives here. They are part of the community.”

The president’s executive orders, which will be fully implemented in six months, will leave an estimated 60 percent of the state’s 925,000 illegal residents without protections, including the oldest immigrant group in Florida: farm workers.

Nearly half the undocumented people who work in the fields and citrus groves — roughly 50,000 — will more than likely not qualify for the president’s plan, said veteran advocates.

Many are single males who still follow the migrant paths of the growing seasons, and still struggle with poor wages and work conditions that lead to serious injuries. Over the past two years, many federal immigration raids have been at the housing centers set up for the workers.

“Many people are asking me: ‘What is going to happen to these poor people,’ ” said Greg Schell, a longtime attorney with Florida Legal Services.

Pedro Martin, 41, has worked on farms since 2005, picking everything from tomatoes and beans to squash on the fields of southern Miami-Dade.

He said he hoped for a special order from the president that would allow laborers to work in the fields without fear of deportation. But Thursday, as he watched Obama’s address in the home he shares with four roommates, he realized there would be no provisions for them.

Advocates met on Friday with immigrants across South Florida, the largest concentration of undocumented residents in the state, trying to explain why some were covered by the deferred action ordered by the president, and others not.

Eighteen-year-old Jose Santiago said he felt the responsibility to explain to his parents, who are farm laborers living near Homestead, that they were not included in the plan.

Though he has been granted benefits as a Dreamer — illegal immigrants who came to the country as children — his parents, Jose, 46, and Francisca, 38, did not qualify for reprieves.

“I called them on the phone” after watching Obama’s speech at the WeCount offices, said the Miami Dade College freshman. “Then I went home later and we talked. They weren’t that hopeful because of the rumors. But it was still a disappointment to them.”

Since arriving from Mexico a decade ago, his fear has been to arrive home from school, and find “my parents gone. They would be taken away. It can happen to them. Every since I was little, they always made sure my sister and I went to school. Other families get their [children] to work once they turn 16, but on the contrary with my parents. They made sure I went to school.”

Advocates say the solution to help the six million people left out of the plan rests in broad legislation passed by the U.S. Senate last year that would overhaul the entire system. Under the bill, most immigrants would be on a 13-year path to citizenship. Though it cleared the Senate, 68-32, it was ultimately blocked by GOP leaders in the House.

Calderon said politics has overshadowed the contributions that immigrants have made. An honors gradate of Miami Senior High School, he works full time for minimum wage so he can help put himself through classes at FIU.

“I just feel like I have to keep going to school to be safe, so I won’t be deported,” said Calderon, who missed getting Dreamer benefits because he turned 16 just before entering the country.

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