President Barack Obama’s announcement Thursday night that he would act unilaterally to allow about 5 million undocumented immigrants to work legally in the United States without fear of deportation was met with both personal and political responses in Hall County and across the state and nation.
In Gainesville, Latino students, professionals and activists gathered Thursday at El Sombrero restaurant on Browns Bridge Road to watch the announcement on live television.
The group had been given a preview of Obama’s speech, but the news didn’t hit home until after the president concluded his address.
“I think it’s a very important step forward,” said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. “I think many people in the Gainesville community that work in our poultry plants, that go to school, that go to church with us, are going to be impacted. ... I think it is a big opportunity that people will seize to get right with the law.”
Gonzalez said that about 116,000 Georgia families could potentially be impacted by the president’s action, which won’t be implemented until next year.
Maria Palacios, a finance major at the University of North Georgia and member of the Latino Student Association, said she had mixed feelings about Obama’s plans.
Palacios’ parents first came to the United States on work visas in the 1980s. They made a living as migrant farmers in California, but returned to Mexico for a brief time, where she was born.
The family later moved to Florida, then Hall County, where Palacios spent most of her childhood and went on to graduate from Gainesville High School.
“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” she said, but added that millions of immigrants remain left in the gaps, unable to come “out of the shadows,” as Obama put it.
Palacios has family members that will be protected by the temporary action Obama is taking, but still has family in Mexico restricted from a pathway to citizenship by the current immigration system.
And that’s a fix only Congress can make, Palacios said.
Edgar Jimenez of Rabun County said he has many friends who will benefit from the executive action, but knows many supporters of immigration reform will feel that Obama didn’t go far enough.
“A lot of people might get upset with Obama for doing this little,” Jimenez said, but “he’s not a dictator.”
Laura Colaninno, a retired East Hall High School teacher, said she taught many undocumented immigrants during her time, and expressed support for the executive action based on her personal experience with these students.
“They were good kids,” she said. “And they are part of America. They need to be welcomed in just like my German ancestors ...”
Colaninno said in an ideal political world, Congress would have passed immigration reform long before Obama took action Thursday night.
They came close. A bipartisan immigration reform bill passed the Senate last summer but never came up for a vote in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
The rebuke from Republicans was sharp and swift following Obama’s announcement. Put simply, they believe the president’s actions are unconstitutional.
“Executive action granting amnesty to millions of illegals is President Obama taking out his anger on the American people for rejecting his agenda through the due process of elections two weeks ago,” U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, said in a statement. “He’s had six years to work with Congress, two of those years with his party in total control of Washington, on constructive, compassionate and fair immigration reform. His singular action defies all three of those principles.”
Georgia’s Republican U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss released a joint statement saying they would consider all legislative and legal remedies to stop the executive action from being implemented.
Republican U.S. Sen.-elect David Perdue said in a statement that the president’s actions were purely political and advocated for step-by-step reforms to fix the immigration system rather than “sweeping actions that don’t solve the underlying problem.”
The Georgia Young Republicans got in on the criticism, too.
“I am disappointed with President Obama’s decision to bypass Congress on immigration in America through executive order,” Alex Gimenez said in a statement. “It’s up to the American people through Congress — not the executive branch acting alone — to decide how we reform the broken immigration system in place.”
Kris Yardley, chairman of the Hall County Republican Party, said Obama’s move is a “smack in the face to immigrants who came here and worked the process legally.”
Meanwhile, local Democrats expressed tepid support for the president’s proposal, with some saying it didn’t go far enough.
But more than anything, the executive action was seen as the latest example of the American melting pot.
“America is the kind of place that is supposed to welcome people who are in dire situations,” said Frank Lock, chairman of the Hall County Democratic Party.
For supporters of the president’s actions, reforming the immigration system remains the responsibility of Congress. So there appears to be some common ground between Democrats and Republicans there.
But, of course, supporters are happy that Obama has taken the initiative to temporarily ensure that millions of eligible immigrants are not deported and split up from their families.
But there is no guarantee that the president’s actions will be met with approval from eligible immigrants.
“It is a calculated risk for people because it is a temporary solution,” Gonzalez said about those undocumented immigrants who might decide to come forward.
Yardley said finding a permanent solution will require Democrats and Republicans to meet in the middle, though he believes that not every unique immigration situation can be addressed.
There has been talk that Republicans need to soften their opposition to Obama’s actions for fear of alienating Latino voters.
And while there may be some truth to that, even Lock cautioned against such sweeping conclusions.
“There are a lot of other factors besides just the immigration issue” that these voters care about, he said.