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Undocumented immigrants circumspect about Obama directive on deportations

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Viridiana Martinez is many things. She's been a Sanford resident since she was 7 years old after her Mexican father crossed the border with a visa to work North Carolina tobacco fields. The visa has long since expired, but Martinez and her family remain.

She's a 2004 high school graduate with honors who once led her school's marching band as drum major.

She's a community activist and leader in the N.C. DREAM Team, a group of undocumented immigrants and their allies lobbying for immigration reform.

But what she's not, strictly speaking, is an American.

It would seem, then, that Martinez would be encouraged by President Barack Obama's June 15 directive to defer deportations for certain illegal immigrants for at least two years as lawmakers presumably craft some citizenship process for productive, young immigrants like Martinez.

It would seem so, but Martinez has been disappointed by false promises before, and she's not celebrating just yet.

"We plan to continue to put the president's feet to the fire," she said Monday. "We want more than anyone to actually have this to be true and for us not to be played again, so we're not calling this a victory yet."

In 2008, Martinez listened to Obama's campaign promises to speed immigration reform in his first 100 days. That window came and went; in the meantime, Obama's administration has deported more undocumented immigrants than any previous administration.

Then came the "Morton memos," the handful of policy guidelines issued last year by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton, directing agents to exercise "prosecutorial discretion." In theory, that meant focusing deportation efforts on illegal immigrants with criminal records rather than young people like Martinez, identified as DREAMers per the long-stalled federal DREAM Act's target group of squeaky-clean, hard-working immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. Nevertheless, DREAMers are still popping up in deportation proceedings spurred in some cases by simple traffic offenses.

Now, after weeks of DREAMer protests—including Occupy-inspired "UndOccupy" sit-ins at Obama campaign offices—the president delivered, sort of.

The president's directive could halt the deportation of an estimated 800,000 "certain young people who were brought to the United States as young children, do not present a risk to national security or public safety, and meet several key criteria," according to a federal press release.

Martinez and the DREAM Team wanted an executive order with the full force of law. What they have for now is policy guidance as languid immigration legislation continues its exile in a divided Congress.

Obama's decision comes as the president courts Latino voters and GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney struggles to reconcile hard-line members of his party with his own nebulous stance on the controversial issue.

It arrived 10 days before the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rebuffed a number of the provisions in Arizona's stringent immigration law, but upheld the state's requirement that law enforcement officers check suspects' immigration documentation, something of an invitation to future legal wrangling over "show me your papers" tactics by border-state police.

Marty Rosenbluth, attorney and executive director of the reform-advocating N.C. Immigrant Rights Project, is much like Martinez—cautious.

"I'm trying not to be too optimistic and I'm trying to not be too pessimistic," Rosenbluth said. "It's really going to be a 'wait-and-see' based on the past."

The past, as Rosenbluth and Martinez noted, has hinted that federal leaders are tilting toward reform, even as conservative critics blasted legislation like the DREAM Act as "amnesty" for illegal immigrants. The results, such as the much-ballyhooed Morton memos, have been spotty.

"They said the priority is going to be on deporting dangerous criminals, but every day in immigration court, folks are being arrested and put in deportation proceedings for minor traffic violations," Rosenbluth said. "If they were following their own guidelines, that shouldn't be happening."

More and more young people like Martinez are fighting the deportation, thanks to groups like the N.C. DREAM Team and the N.C. Immigrant Rights Project.

Martinez, 25, works as a Spanish-language interpreter. Accepted by N.C. State University based on her high marks, she found paying for university tuition difficult and opted for community college coursework instead. Securing financial aid is a challenge when you don't have a Social Security number, she points out.

But Martinez gets by, and she brings her message to protests across the state, responding to the mounting DREAMer deportations by unearthing the stories of these longtime American residents. "We aren't protected by the laws, so we kind of have to take things into our own hands," she said. "A lot of folks have come out and have decided an attorney can't do anything for me, so why not tell my story?"

Deborah Weissman, a UNC-Chapel Hill law professor with expertise in immigration policy, called Obama's announcement a first step, but not much more. "I think most people were happy, but again, cautiously happy," Weissman said. "The devil is going to be in the details on this."

Weissman said reform leaders will have to vet the application process for Obama's deferral, a process that is expected to be ironed out over the next 50 days. As customs officials noted two weeks ago, applicants for deferral will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. They must have arrived in the country when they were under the age of 16; they must be educated residents with a clean criminal record; and they must have lived in the country continuously for at least five years prior to the June 15 announcement.

Rosenbluth points out many questions remain about the process. Will the application come with a fee? Will the deferral be decided at the local level? Will minor traffic offenses—like the countless driving-without-a-license tickets issued to immigrants—be used to disqualify applicants?

Weissman said implementation will be key to judging the president's decision and its effects on the uncounted heads of immigrants. "These are people who came to the United States without a decision on their part," she said. "Because of the basic criteria that has been laid out, they are already woven into the fabric of our society. They want to be productive and they want to be good citizens and good neighbors."

The implications for law enforcement are no less unclear. In Orange County, where longtime Sheriff Lindy Pendergrass' office deports roughly one to two immigrants a month, the sheriff is supportive of change when it comes to young, school-going immigrants with clean records.

"I don't have nothing against those kids," Pendergrass said. "If they become citizens and take the oath of being an American, that's fine with me."

That's fine with Martinez too, but she'll believe when it she sees it. As Martinez puts it, it's time for Obama to deliver on his promise.

"People can't continue to be deported like this," she said. "Families are being separated and youth are being taken away from the only country that we know as home."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Guarded optimism."

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