Illegal immigrant students at labor center cheer Obama's speech
It was a moment that, unlike many of their family members, would most certainly be documented.
With cellphones and cameras, they snapped photos of the TV screen, of the room, of each other -- all as President Obama promised to "lift the shadow of deportation."
About 130 students gathered at the UCLA Labor Center across from MacArthur Park to celebrate Obama's announcement that young illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and who do not pose a security threat will no longer be deported.
When the president referred to "dreamers" and said they were "going to make extraordinary contributions," the room erupted in applause.
The brief speech was followed by cheering and a chant of "Si, se puede!"
The Dream Act, defeated in Congress in 2010, would create a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as minors. The students are interns with the Dream Resource Center, an organization that promotes research, education and policy for undocumented immigrant students and is affiliated with the labor center. From 15 states, they are in Los Angeles for the weekend for a training seminar before heading back to internships that specialize in social justice.
"It's a great feeling to know the president of the United States is supporting us," said Esthela Aguilar, 19. "Maybe it will change other people's perspectives because if the president is saying it, maybe it's the right thing to do."
An elated Carlos Amador, coordinator for the Dream Resource Center, got choked up when expressing his feelings about the day.
"It's just been hard to put words together," said the 27-year-old whose family came to the U.S. illegally from Mexico City in 1999.
Amador took up the cause last year after the Dream Act legislation failed to pass. For many years, he worried about his security. Earning his master's degree in social work from UCLA was costly and he wondered if he'd be able to put his education to use here.
He recently married a U.S. citizen but knew his 22-year-old sister did not have the same protection. Amador's older brother had already been deported in 2003.
That brother called Amador on Friday morning after hearing Obama's news and offered his congratulations.
"It's been an amazing day," Amador said. "A lot of people didn't think this was legally and politically possible, but the immigrant youth demonstrated their determination to be part of this country."
At the same time, many were wary of getting too excited.
"I'm happy, but it's just words," said Karla Juarez, a student at East L.A. College. "We need to see something concrete."
Juarez said she came to the U.S. with her parents at age 6 without the proper papers, and although she is relieved for herself she worries about older friends and family who do not meet the new policy's requirements.
And an attorney who works with the resource center had some sobering words for the crowd.
"This is not a path toward citizenship," said Nicholas Espiritu. "This is a temporary stay on any kind of action immigration officials will take."
Some also talked about the announcement as an obligatory move and that a long journey awaited.
"I think it's the least he could do; he promised us a lot of things and did not deliver," said Cyndi Bendezu, who arrived illegally in the city of Southgate from Peru at age 4.
Now pursuing a master's degree in higher education at Columbia University, she has been an advocate of the Dream Act for years and works with undocumented youth.
"This is a huge victory but it's only the first step. We'll continue fighting."
-- Corina Knoll
Photo: Illegal immigrant students rally Friday outside the Federal Building downtown. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times.