In his speech Thursday night, President Barack Obama spoke about the kind of immigrants he hopes to help with his executive action.
“Most of these immigrants have been here a long time. They work hard, often in tough low paying jobs. They support their families. They worship at our churches,” Obama said on national TV.
The president could have been talking about St. Mary’s Catholic Church in East Chicago, Indiana. Located in a working class city, where half the city’s 35,0000 residents are Hispanic, the church is expecting lots of undocumented immigrants in the coming days.
“We’re going to be swamped with people,” said Jose Bustos, executive director of the Casa Santo Toribio Center at St. Mary’s Church, a place where undocumented immigrants regularly seek assistance from his small, mostly volunteer staff.
“Basically we’re telling the folks to start gathering all the documents they have to prove that indeed they had been here in this country from the day they are going to claim that they got here,” Bustos said.
But others, including Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a possible presidential contender, is looking for ways to block the presidents’ actions.
“The American people do not want comprehensive immigration reform. Part of the solution is to prevent the administration from overturning laws that have been enacted,” Pence told NBC earlier this week.
Pence has instructed Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller to look into suing the Obama administration.
“It is beyond frustrating both that Congress has thus far failed to exercise its authority to reform immigration policy and that the President has apparently exceeded his authority by declining to enforce certain laws, in an area where states are prohibited from acting,” Zoeller stated in a news release. “Inaction by the federal legislative branch does not justify the federal executive branch overstepping its bounds. Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
In the meantime, East Chicago residents like Enriqueta and Alejandro, who asked that her last name not be used, are relieved by the President’s action.
The couple arrived in Indiana more than a decade ago from Mexico City. Both clean houses for a living while their American-born kids go to school.
Alejandro said he welcomed the president’s efforts.
“I feel happy that the President is going to try to help immigrants,” Alejandro said in Spanish while sitting in Bustos’ office. “Obama is providing calm and peace to those who are undocumented.”
Until now, Enriqueta constantly worried about being arrested and deported.
“I’m not the only one who is afraid but there are others like me who would rather just stay home and not go outside. But we have to go outside to work,” Enriqueta said in Spanish.
The State of Indiana has long had a reputation for cracking down on undocumented immigrants.
In 2011, the Republican-led Indiana General Assembly adopted measures nearly as strict as the border state of Arizona.
It included provisions for state police officers to stop suspected undocumented drivers. But some in Indiana’s small but growing Hispanic community loudly objected, saying police would be racially profiling motorists.
The law in Arizona was ultimately deemed unconstitutional, effectively nullifying Indiana’s law.
Under the President’s action, federal immigration authorities would stop the deportation of parents with American born children who have been living in the country for at least 5 years.
“President Obama set forth a bold plan to secure our nation’s borders, help keep families together, and expand our economy. The President’s action was a necessary step in a Republican Congress that has refused to take up immigration reform,” U.S. Rep. Andre Carson, D-Indianapolis, said.
Many immigrants are drawn here to work on Hoosier farms – from Northwest Indiana communities like Crown Point and Lowell – to southern Indiana cities bordering Kentucky.
The comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate last year included a guest worker program designed to help those farms.
The Indiana Farm Bureau supported it, as did U.S. Senator Joe Donnelly.
But yesterday Donnelly, a Democrat from South Bend, said the President was now going too far.
“It is clear the immigration system in this country is broken, and only Congress has the ability to change the law to fix it. The Senate passed bipartisan immigration reform last summer with my support, though we are still waiting on the House to debate this issue,” Donnelly wrote in a statement. “I am as frustrated as anyone that Congress is not doing its job, but the President shouldn’t make such significant policy changes on his own.”
That sentiment was echoed by many in Lake County.
“I think it’s wrong. What about the people who did it the right way?” said Larry Hine, the owner of Larry’s Barber Shop in downtown Crown Point, about 25 miles south of East Chicago. “They did it the right way and these people just walked across the line and we’re paying for them, our tax dollars.”
When asked about the notion that undocumented immigrants take low paid farm jobs that most Americans don’t want, Hine acknowledged it was an issue but said, “I couldn’t prove that one way or the other.”
Fellow Crown Point resident John Moose says this is about more than just economics. He thinks the President is ignoring the resounding defeat his party suffered in the mid-term elections.
“He’s wrong with all this and the American people spoke a couple of weeks ago and they spoke clearly whether he wants to say he heard it or not,” Moose, who runs an insurance company, said. “I love immigrants. This is what this country is all about. Even the American Indians are immigrants. They came over from China. People should be sent back and they should come through the normal process.”
Back in East Chicago immigrant advocate Jose Bustos isn’t sure what the fuss is about.
“The state of Indiana has always been anti-immigrant. It is something beyond me. If you look at the demographics, if you look at the numbers, we are something like not even 2 percent of the population of the state. What is it that they are afraid of? These are people who are not criminals. These are people are helping the economy,” Bustos said.
Bustos adds the President’s move will end the fear many undocumented parents and their American-born children have felt for years.
“These kids are in fear. They are in fear of losing mom and dad. They go to school and come back with an empty home. Where is the justice in that?” Bustos said.
Bustos admits the executive order will only aid about 5 million of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.
“As the old saying goes, we didn’t get the whole loaf. We got a little bit under a half of loaf,” Bustos said. “But this half a loaf is going to alleviate the fear that so many, so many people are going through right now.
Today, a group of lawyers from nearby Valparaiso University will be helping Bustos counsel immigrants on how to take advantage of the President’s move.
Michael Puente is WBEZ’s Northwest Indiana Bureau Reporter. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.