Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: Dreams fulfilled, dreams dashed

Julio Calderon (center) in Tallahassee working to get undocumented students in-state tuition.
Julio Calderon (center) in Tallahassee working to get undocumented students in-state tuition. AP Photo/The Tampa Bay Times

There he was, the president on whom young Julio Calderon had pinned his hopes, delivering on national television a historic decision to bring millions of undocumented immigrants out of the shadows.

But for Calderon, the words President Barack Obama spoke were bittersweet.

“No, I don’t benefit,” the 25-year-old Florida International University student told me wearily. “I was left out.”

Once again, this meritorious young man who has been volunteering with immigrant rights groups, participating in rallies to raise awareness and meeting with elected officials to change minds on issues like in-state tuition rates for Dreamers, didn’t qualify for any of the relief the president is offering through an executive order.

And neither did his twin brother, Jesus, a religious young man so scared to be returned to Honduras that he stays behind the scenes in those proverbial shadows the president evoked.

For the estimated five million undocumented immigrants celebrating the protection from deportation gained by presidential order — and for those of us who believe that immigrants’ energy and economic gains benefits all Americans — Thursday night’s announcement was one of the finest moments of President Obama’s presidency.

Obama not only challenged the do-nothing Congress — now more conservative, combative and unlikely than ever to pass reforms that benefit immigrants — and asked lawmakers to pass an immigration reform bill, he struck down his own record-breaking deportation policy.

With the decision to use executive powers to soften the line on who’s deported — “felons, not families,” he said — Obama put an end to the desperation of millions of families in which a parent faced repatriation.

Nevertheless, the president’s limited action to protect immigrants left out people like Calderon, one of the six million other undocumented immigrants who for one reason or another didn’t fit into the neat criteria of the guidelines.

Once again, no matter how hard he’s worked, no matter how hard he’s studied, no matter how mindfully he’s conducted his life serving others, Calderon simply didn’t quality — by a fluke of days on a calendar.

The news leaves the Calderon family’s immigration status as it was — a hodgepodge: The parents are here on the temporary protective status given to refugees from troubled countries like Honduras. Daughter Sonia, 12, was born in the United States and is a citizen. Youngest son Franklin, 19, benefitted from the president’s deferred action status granted to Dreamers in 2012 and the in-state tuition in Florida for which his brother fought.

But the two oldest siblings, twins Julio and Jesus, don’t quality for anything because of their birth date.

The brothers arrived in the United States 25 days after their 16th birthday — missing, by less than a month, the cut-off age to qualify as the so-called Dreamers. They live like the American children of the undocumented that they are, they feel American, but they’re not the beneficiaries of the Deferred Action program that protects them from deportation.

Obama’s new order protects the parents, but not the brothers.

President Obama’s executive order is certainly something to celebrate, but, as this family’s case illustrates, it’s far from everything the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented needed from immigration reform.

On a night when the nation was divided between those who settled into their customary programming of hospital and vampire melodramas and those who tuned in to watch the president from the Oval Office on PBS and the nation’s Spanish-language stations with a mix of tears and cheers, the MundoFox hash tag on Twitter said it all: #algoesalgo.

Or as we might put it in English, something is better than nothing.

With that something, the president delivered not only a historic decision, he brought back to the immigration debate the humanity that has been missing during the past years of hate speech and failed, hijacked debate in Congress.

“We are and always will be a nation of immigrants,” the president said. “We were strangers once, too. And whether our forebears were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in, and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like, or what our last names are, or how we worship. What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal — that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will.”

Those were rousing, soothing words for weary people.

But Julio Calderon, who shuttles between a humble job in a hotel and pays overpriced tuition out of his pocket at FIU, deserved more than words he believes were carefully crafted in another futile effort to appease the political opposition.

He found a speck of hope in the president’s challenge to Congress.

“And to those members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: Pass a bill.”

On that point, Calderon, one of the faces of immigration reform, couldn’t agree more.

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