Obama’s ‘Dream’ policy hailed by Hispanics, but with caution

Washington — President Obama’s move to halt the deportation of immigrant youths is being praised as “life-changing” by advocates in Connecticut and across the nation, but its impact is unclear among disaffected Hispanic voters upset at the administration’s record-setting deportation rate.

A poll by Latino Decisions taken earlier this year in swing states with large Hispanic voter populations found 53 percent of Latinos said they were less enthusiastic about Obama in 2012 than they had been in 2009.

But in a poll taken by the company over the weekend, 49 percent of the respondents said the so-called “Dream” youth announcement has made them more enthusiastic about the president.

The announcement of  the new policy on Friday “appears to have clearly erased Obama’s enthusiasm deficit among Latinos,” said pollster Matt Barreto.

But that may not be enough to drive Latino turnout for Obama in the numbers they went to the polls in 2008, said Rosalind Gold, senior policy director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

Gold said the president’s announcement “sent a very strong message to the Latino community.”

“But we also know Latinos care about other things. Economy and jobs are number one,” she said. “So while many Latinos are welcoming this, they are still going to be watching both [presidential] candidates carefully.”

Hispanic advocates have been pleading with Obama for more than two years to halt the rapid pace of deportations, which total about 1.2 million since the president assumed office.

Obama’s new initiative will slow the rate of deportations, but it’s not clear by how much.

Under the president’s new policy, immigration officials are to defer deportations of qualifying immigrants for two years and allow them to apply for work permits.

To be eligible, applicants for deferred action must be 30 or younger and have come to the United States before they were 16. They must be in school, graduates or military veterans, and have no criminal record.

While most Democrats, including Gov. Dannel Malloy and members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation, praised the president’s move, some Republicans are condemning it as the first step toward a wrongful amnesty for those who’ve broken the law.

Yet Angela Zurowski, executive director of the Bridgeport-based International Institute of Connecticut, an immigrant advocacy group, called the initiative “little more than a Band-Aid.”

“This addresses some of our concerns, but comprehensive reform would have been better,” she said.

Comprehensive reforms, including permanent help for illegal immigrant children, must be approved by Congress. And Congress has been reluctant to act on the hot-button issue of immigration.

Zurowski said she is waiting for the final regulations for the new policy, which are expected to be released in about 60 days.

“We don’t know the details,” she said. “So at this point we’re just watching.”

The president’s announcement was received with joy by immigrant youth whose status had put them at risk of deportation and barred them from applying for government tuition assistance or student loans.

“It’s a miracle,” said Diego Aguilar, a 19-year-old student from Norwalk.

Born in Mexico City and sent to the United States by his mother when he was eight, Aguilar was about to leave the country to study in Canada because he could not afford the tuition at the University of Connecticut without financial aid.

Now UConn is within his financial reach and he’s enrolling in the school.

When Obama announced his new immigration policy “everything changed,” Aguilar said. “It couldn’t be real. I couldn’t believe it.”

Aguilar is a member of Connecticut Students for a Dream, a coalition of undocumented youth and their allies across the state, who held a press conference at Yale Law School Monday.

Brazilian twins Camila Bortolleto and Carolina Bortolleto say they are “incredibly happy” because they are eligible to qualify for the act. Until last Thursday, both were deeply anxious about their future and had been busy with their summer classes at Western Connecticut State University and making that extra effort to boost their career prospects. “But this announcement on Friday has given me a better direction,” said Camila, an International Studies major.

The Bortolleto sisters — who are now 24 — were brought to the US from Sao Paulo in 1988 when they were eight years old. “We stayed over after out tourist visa expired,” she said. “There was no looking back after that. This became our new home…we went to school and college here, but I never thought I’d ever be able to put my degree to good use. Now, that seems possible.”

According to the Migration Policy Institute, between 800,000 and 1.4 million undocumented immigrants like Aguilar could be affected by Obama’s announcement. Lorella Preali, an organizer for Somos Connecticut (We are Connecticut) said there may be 11,000 to 15,000 such individuals in Connecticut.

But not all of them may apply for new status.

The president’s policy, renewable every two years, depends on the support of whoever is in the Oval Office. There’s no guarantee a successor to Obama would continue to implement it.

Meanwhile, federal immigration officials would have the names and contact information for hundreds of thousands of youths who entered the country illegally.

“We’re celebrating, but we’re celebrating with caution,” said Lucas Codognolla, a member of Connecticut Students for a Dream. “There still are some unanswered questions.”

Obama made his announcement as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was drafting his version of a Dream Act bill. Rubio has been on former Gov. Mitt Romney’s short list of possible vice presidential candidates.

Codognolla said he realizes the president’s action “could be a political ploy” to ramp up support of Hispanic voters. But he says the new policy is “symbolic, in terms of hope.”

Emigrating from Brazil to the United States when he was nine years old, Codognolla did not know he was undocumented until he wanted to obtain a drivers license “and my parents sat me down and explained things.”

He’s just finished his junior year at the University of Connecticut, often struggling to pay his tuition. Sometimes he was only able to afford part-time status.

Codognolla said he now looks forward to having a job, a driver’s license and a future.

“This is going to change my life,” he said.