Amid the hugs in the packed room of the immigration center, Jose Delgado quietly strode to a corner and searched for his friends.
Just as the image of President Obama faded from the wide screen on Thursday night, he turned to the others close by and smiled.
“I can come out of the shadows,” said Delgado, 64, who hung on every word of Obama's announcement on prime time television that he — and millions of other undocumented immigrants — would be safeguarded from deportation.
The president's move to protect the parents of children who are U.S. citizens or legal residents struck deeply in South Florida, where more illegal immigrants have moved to in the past five years than nearly any other region of the country.
Delgado left after the broadcast beaming, while others, like Jose Santiago — a native of Mexico — departed with the same fears that have haunted them for years.
“There’s so much uncertainty,’’ said the 18-year-old Miami Dade College student. “This is a fight for a long time.”
The plan unveiled by the president is expected to remove the threat of deportation for up to five million people — including hundreds of thousands in Florida — in the first significant step in years to provide major reforms to a system that government leaders from both parties say is woefully broken.
But it also leaves most of the 11 million undocumented people in the United States with the fear that they could still be detained and deported.
“Every time I drive to school, I get scared that I'm going to get stopped,’’ said Julio Calderon, 25, who can't get a license because he is in the country illegally. “I don't have a choice. What am I going to do?’’
Obama’s executive action also brought more controversy and bitter political fighting both in Washington and Miami, long a center of immigration drama.
Miami-Dade GOP leader Nelson Diaz appeared on MSNBC, accusing the president of shunning the U.S. Constitution by not allowing Congress to tackle the reforms. “I would like to see an executive order by the president that is legal,” he said. Meanwhile, former Democratic Party chairwoman Annette Taddeo-Goldstein accused the GOP of blocking efforts in Congress last year that would have allowed more sweeping legislation. “They’re just using crazy words," she said.
Advocacy groups like WeCount and the Florida Immigrant Coalition were preparing to spend the next several weeks explaining to the scores of immigrants flocking to their centers whether they gain or lose.
“It’s been a very difficult two years in this community,” said Jonathan Fried, executive director of WeCount, which showed the prime time address on a computer projector at its Krome Avenue office in Homestead.
His agency has helped scores of families over the past several years deal with the trauma of relatives — parents, grandparents and others — being deported to Mexico, and countries in Central America.
Many of those same people will now be able to stay, said advocates. Under the plan, immigrants would have to be living in the United States for five years or longer, with no criminal record.
“We're talking about people who have been here a long time. They’ve raised their children here. They’ve worked hard. They've paid taxes,” said Barry Mittelberg, a Broward immigration attorney.
But there are also drawbacks, said experts. Obama can impose an executive order, but it can also be taken away by a future president, making the overhaul temporary.
The measure also doesn’t provide for citizenship nor does it grant subsidies to the immigrants under the Affordable Care Act. “It’s basically a freeze on enforcement efforts,” said David Abraham, a University of Miami law professor who specializes in immigration matters. “It's more like wiping your forehead. It would remove the fear of deportation.”
Public viewings of the presidential address were set up across South Florida, including immigration advocacy centers like Homestead Equal Rights for All and the Florida Immigration Coalition in Miami, which organized a caravan down Biscayne Boulevard. At Jungle Island, more than 100 immigration lawyers mingled with Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski to watch the speech during a Catholic Legal Services gala.
“Two weeks ago, I was on the steps of the Freedom Tower calling for him to do whatever he can within his legal authority to bring relief to at least some of the 11 million immigrants that are in this country,” said Wenski, who has long championed the plight of Haitians arriving in the United States.
Two local GOP members of Congress, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, said any reforms need to take place legislatively and not through a White House plan. “As President Obama has stated, ‘I am president of the United States, not the emperor of the United States,’’’ they said in a joint statement.
But those potentially benefiting from Obama’s action saw it differently.
Yeisy Alcántara, an undocumented mother of two American girls who has lived in the United States for eight years, watched the president’s announcement with other families in Kendall.
Her husband, Francisco José Martínez, who according to Alcántara doesn’t have a criminal record, is locked up in an immigration detention center in downtown Miami, awaiting his deportation.
Alcántara, a Honduras native, said she hopes her husband can be freed and allowed to stay in the country.
“I still can’t believe it; I am shaking,’’ she said, holding back tears.
El Nuevo Staff Writer Brenda Medina and Miami Herald writer Matias Ocner contributed to this report.