Many Californians embrace Obama's immigrant relief 

click to enlarge A Marine stands guards outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, Thursday, signifying that President Barack Obama is working inside, before President Barack Obama announced steps he will take to shield millions of immigrants illegally in the US from deportation. - AP PHOTO/JACQUELYN MARTIN
  • AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
  • A Marine stands guards outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, Thursday, signifying that President Barack Obama is working inside, before President Barack Obama announced steps he will take to shield millions of immigrants illegally in the US from deportation.

FRESNO, Calif. -- Immigrants and activists who gathered across California to watch President Barack Obama announce that he'll shield millions from deportation Thursday night were marked by quiet optimism and emotion more than enthusiasm after watching the speech in a state where the stakes are especially high.

"This is a great day for farmworkers," said Jesus Zuniga, 40, who has worked in the Central Valley picking tomatoes for 14 years without proper documents, returning only once to Mexico to see relatives because it was too risky. "It's been worth the pain and sacrifice."

Zuniga watched with a crowd of several dozen families who gathered in a Fresno community center to hear the president's speech. They held red United Farm Worker flags and watched a projected image of Obama flashed on the wall.

They watched the speech quietly, celebrating and applauding only when speakers at the gathering took to the microphone.

Maria Perez, 41, said she is documented, but she often worries about her nieces, ages 16 and 18, who aren't. With the president's speech, she feels hope that her nieces now can achieve her dreams.

"They're going to have a chance to be what they want to be and get an education," said Perez, a former fieldworker now studying herself to receive her high school equivalency.

About two dozen people gathered in San Diego to watch the speech. They applauded at the end of the president's remarks then were given a chance to ask attorneys questions about the president's enforcement changes.

The president announced far-reaching executive action on immigration that will allow nearly 5 million people now in the U.S. illegally to avoid deportation, "come out of the shadows and get right with the law."

With deeper roots than many Mexicans in other U.S. states, immigrants in California could be among the main beneficiaries of the president's actions: those who have been in the U.S. illegally for more than five years but whose children are citizens or lawful permanent residents. After passing background checks and paying fees, those people can now be granted relief from deportation for three years and get work permits.

Many Mexicans settled in California after Mexico's economy collapsed in 1982, and Central Americans came in the 1980s to escape civil war, making the state's immigrant population more established than in other states.

The independent Migration Policy Institute estimates that nearly 1.6 million people in California will be shielded from deportation out of about 5 million nationwide.

The move also won measured praise from the state's largely Democratic leadership, including Gov. Jerry Brown and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Brown said in a statement that the president "stepped up for hard-working families across America" in the face of Washington gridlock but called on Congress to "finish the job" by passing immigration reform legislation.

Not all Californians celebrated. Escondido Mayor Sam Abed, who has championed local policies aimed at reducing illegal immigration in his city of 150,000 people, said he wouldn't listen to Obama's speech.

"This president has failed this country. He has failed the rule of law," Abed said. "It's abuse of power. This should be done by the Congress."

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