TUCSON, Arizona — Activists and immigrants in Phoenix and Tucson watched closely Thursday night as President Barack Obama announced a new program expected to protect as many as 5 million immigrants who reside in the country illegally.
In Phoenix, about 30 supporters of immigration reform watched Obama's remarks on a large monitor outside the statehouse, where lawmakers passed some of the state's most contentious immigration laws in recent years.
Among the viewers were Abel Rodriguez and Idalia Encinas as well as the couple's two young daughters. The girls, ages 6 and 4, were born in Arizona. But the parents are not U.S. citizens. For them, the president's announcement brings them a long-awaited glimpse of hope.
"This is the best news. A lot of people have the same situation as us," Encinas said. "We don't have health insurance. We can live in a better place, benefits."
Rodriguez said Obama's proposal could also mean that they would be able to visit their family in Mexico without fear of not being able to return to the U.S. or getting separated from their daughters. "I have not seen my family for 10 years. I have two grandsons that I don't see," Rodriguez said.
Petra Falcon, executive director of Promise Arizona and one of the viewing party's organizers, praised Obama but wanted to see more proposals addressing the approximately 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally.
"Obviously he was trying to be very exact and political because the broad array of issues," Falcon said. "Even though it's just a temporary fix, at least people will come out of the shadows. Right now, we have to be grateful for that. But we have to continue to fight for all the families that live in fear."
Many believe his executive action will protect the immigrant parents of U.S.-born children.
"First of all, we're really, really happy that the movement and the community was pressing for so long. It's been a really frustrating 1 ½ years of pressuring the president," said Erika Andiola, spokeswoman for the Arizona Dream Act Coalition.
Andiola said that although the president taking action is a victory, the moment is bittersweet for her and many others whose loved ones will not benefit from it.
Falcon noted that Obama did not mention the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Obama's program will likely exclude parents of immigrant children who are protected from deportation through DACA. Young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally by their parents and who meet a number of qualifications can be DACA recipients.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer slammed Obama for what she called "brazen, unilateral action that will only further exacerbate the border problem," just like he did when he issued an order giving legal status to children of immigrants in 2012.
"This is not a partisan issue," Brewer said. "When the bluest of blue states - like Oregon, for example - vote overwhelmingly to prohibit illegal aliens from obtaining drivers licenses, it speaks volumes about the widespread lack of support for President Obama's immigration policies. The American people have spoken, and time and again they have been ignored."
There are about 300,000 immigrants in Arizona who are in the country illegally, according to report by the Pew Research Center that was released this week. That number has fallen over the past few years as the population of immigrants has shifted from Arizona and other states to the Midwest and East Coast. The number of immigrants who lack legal status has remained the same since 2009 at 11.2 million.
In Arizona, immigration has been an especially difficult battleground for immigrant advocates as the state has passed a series of immigration crackdowns. The most well-known, SB1070, requires local police to check the immigration status of people they encounter while enforcing other laws.
Arizona activists have renewed a popular church sanctuary movement from the 1980s in which immigrants facing deportation take shelter in churches, where authorities typically do not arrest people. Five immigrants have taken sanctuary at different times this year.
Tang reported from Phoenix.