Obama Town Hall Draws Mixed Reactions from Immigrant Viewers

Obama and Diaz-Balart during the Feb. 25 town hall. Image: White House.

With the fate of executive action on immigration unclear, President Barack Obama sought to assure those affected during a televised town hall in Miami, Fla. on Feb. 25. Taking questions from the audience and social media, the president stressed that felons — not families — should worry about deportation. But many undocumented immigrants remain uncertain about their future, especially since new immigration rules are stalled.

On Feb. 16, a federal judge in Texas blocked the Obama administration’s executive action on immigration, putting a temporary hold on deportation-relief programs. While the Justice Department appealed the ruling, those eligible will have to wait to apply.

“Even with legal uncertainty, they should be in a good place,” Obama said during the bilingual discussion with MSNBC and Telemundo anchor Jose Diaz-Balart.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives approved a bill last month to defund the new immigration policy — though Obama vowed Wednesday to veto the legislation.

Originally slated to go into effect this month, the first executive action policy would allow around 270,000 immigrants who arrived in the United States as children to receive protected status, expanding the already existing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, expected to begin in May, would offer deportation relief to around 4 million immigrants who are parents of U.S. citizens or legal residents.

Given the atmosphere of uncertainty around executive action, Obama drew mixed reactions from viewers on social media and in the audience.

See what questions immigrants asked on Twitter during the event.

The first question Diaz-Balart took from Twitter came from Maria Martinez, a 47-year-old Venezuelan marketing account executive from Weston, Fla. She asked the president about deportation risks of those eligible for legal status. “My husband was deported during the legalization process!” Martinez tweeted.

In a phone interview, Martinez explained that after becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, she submitted immigration paperwork last month for her husband Marcos Lorente, a Brazilian national. But just two days later, her husband was in a car accident, and police called Immigration and Customs Enforcement when they discovered Lorente’s expired driver’s license. He was deported to Brazil on Feb. 13. “It’s totally surreal what’s happening to us as a family,” she said. Nevertheless, Martinez said she was delighted that Obama learned about her husband’s case. “All we have at this point is hope,” she added.

Others shared their concerns on Twitter. Pedro Garcia, a 36-year-old museum educator from the Bronx, N.Y., wanted Obama to clarify his policy on criminal deportations.

“Should someone that has a [felony] be treated the same way as a misdemeanor? Help,” he tweeted. A father of two, Garcia was born in Venezuela and came to the U.S. at age 10, later becoming a legal permanent resident. But in 2013, immigration agents appeared at his door with a deportation order stemming from a decade-old misdemeanor conviction. He was briefly taken into detention, and he’s been fighting deportation since. When it comes to immigrants with a criminal history, “ICE treats them all the same,” he said. “How is that fair?”

Franco Segovia, 17, watched the town hall from his home in Austell, Ga. “What about the ‘DREAMers’ parents? I have no siblings born here,” he tweeted. The high school senior qualifies for DACA, making him a DREAMer, a term coined after proposed legislation to protect undocumented youth. In an email, Segovia confessed that he’s anxious about his parents, undocumented Uruguayan immigrants who don’t qualify for executive action.

“I’m concerned that they will soon be asked to leave, and I will be on my own in this country,” he wrote. He wasn’t happy with Obama’s response to a DREAMer who asked about deportation relief for her mother. “I would like to know what is stopping him from helping benefit everyone,” he said.

During the event, Obama also fielded a question from a war veteran. Eric Narvaez Alavarado, 26, told the president about fighting his mother’s deportation to Mexico after he returned home from Afghanistan. Esther Alvarado, who attended the town hall with her son, told The Miami Herald that she felt optimistic about Obama’s assurance that she should feel safe in the short term.

“I kind of believe in him. I have faith in him,” she said.

Also in the audience was 31-year-old Dream Action Coalition co-director Cesar Vargas. A leader in the immigration reform movement and a Mexico-born DACA recipient, Vargas felt the event benefited the president, allowing him to hear from people affected by executive action. Plus, he was heartened by Obama’s position on immigration agents who ignore the policy to prioritize criminals. “I was actually very encouraged that he said that agents that don’t follow the new directives will suffer consequences,” said Vargas. “It’s about less rhetoric and more accountability that the administration needs to ensure happens.”


Rachel Glickhouse is a freelance writer and graduate student based in New York who covers Latin America and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @riogringa.

This article is part of the year-long Immigration Reporting Project for the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism's Social Journalism program. Follow the project on Twitter @IRPSocialJ.