I’ve covered President Barack Obama’s executive orders on immigration for nearly two years.
Since the first day he announced his plan to shield up to 5 million people from deportation through the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans program and the expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program in November 2014, the issue has been a hot topic that always makes tensions and emotions run high.
I’ve gone to news conference after news conference in which one side denounces the other and touts the righteousness of their own opinion. A day after Obama’s announcement of his orders in 2014, I covered a rally in front of the Texas Capitol, where, far from being happy about the orders, immigrants and their allies urged the Obama administration to do more to protect unauthorized immigrants in the country. One young lady, who was a beneficiary of the original DACA program in 2012, told me she was happy for her mother who qualified for the program aimed at parents of American citizens but disappointed that it did nothing for the parents of her colleagues who did not have siblings born in the United States.
Soon after Judge Andrew Hanen of the federal district court in Brownsville placed an injunction on the programs the day before they were set to go live last February, I covered a news conference in which immigrants rights advocates were stubbornly optimistic saying the injunction would not stand and urged their community to have their documents prepared for the moment when the block on the programs was lifted.
When the Supreme Court agreed to take up the case in January, I remember the hope in the voices of immigrants rights advocates. Finally, they believed, they would get a fair shot at a hearing, away from what they considered conservative-leaning courts that had openly criticized the Obama administration in the past and held anti-immigrant views.
Even after Justice Antonin Scalia died in February, immigrant rights advocates somehow found a way to stay optimistic about the outcome of the case in the face of what seemed very likely to be a 4-4 split that would block the implementation of the program for the remainder of Obama’s term and likely leave the fate of the programs in the hands of the next president.
We’ve got nothing to lose, they said. We have to remain optimistic.
But that optimism was hard to spot during a vigil in front of the Governor’s Mansion in downtown Austin Thursday night.
Sure, there were the usual rallying cries of “We must continue to fight,” and the call for the crowd to stick together. But mostly a deep-set anger and heartbreak took the place of that optimism.
As the meaning of the decision set in on the group, the old lines about how the programs would help them out of the shadows and allow them lead a normal life in the country that they loved were replaced by resigned comments about how the Supreme Court had “failed them” and scathing criticisms of Gov. Greg Abbott, who filed the suits challenging the programs as Texas’ attorney general.
“It is a shame and a disgrace that the Supreme Court couldn’t come up with a ruling,” said Montserrat Garibay, vice president of Education Austin, as she fought back tears addressing the crowd of about 100. “This Supreme Court decision has ignited a fire in our hearts to keep organizing.”
She wasn’t the only speaker to break down in tears on the night.
But the vigil wasn’t just a moment to air grievances and mope. It seemed to be a cathartic moment for a community that had placed all its hope on one policy from a man in a white house more than a thousand miles away. A policy that was challenged by another man who resides in the mansion in front of which they stood and was ultimately in the hands of short-handed group of eight people in black robes in a court that they had no connection to whatsoever.
In other words, they had placed all their hope on something that was never within their control. And the saddest part is that it could not have been any other way, precisely because of the immigration status that they are fighting to remedy through the very program they had pinned their hopes on. It was a twisted kind of Catch-22 and the full reality of it seemed to fall on them Thursday night in the suffocating heat of Central Texas.
And yet, they would not give up. In the midst of the heartbreak and anger, they resolved more than ever to double their efforts to get out the vote, to canvas their communities to get their allies to vote for people who supported, not only the deferred action programs at stake in the court decision but an overall comprehensive immigration reform. Standing in front of the Governor’s Mansion, Garibay vowed to do everything she could to vote out Abbott in the next election and to stand against any politician that would obstruct benefits toward the immigrant community.
“We remember in November,” she said.
Of course, we’ve heard these things before. Political scientists have long prognosticated that the wave of growth in the Hispanic population in the state would some day turn Texas blue, if not at least purple. That has not come to pass. And in election years, it’s easy for people to get fired up and promise things way beyond their control.
But, I’ve been following these protests for almost two years. They’re always pretty similar, give or take an update on the case or what the issue of the month is when the news conference takes place. This protest Thursday was the first time the desperation, heartbreak and anger in the air was palpable and visible to the naked eye. Speakers had fire in their voices and broke out in tears in the middle of their speeches. Parents hugged their small children, and adults in the crowd hugged each other. Even the usually uplifting music the activists like to play to lighten the mood sounded unusually melancholy.
Will the Supreme Court decision on this case change anything in the long run? Time will tell. But I’ll tell you this: Thursday’s vigil certainly felt different.