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Queens Immigrants Hope for Reform After Obama Speech

JACKSON HEIGHTS — Like many families who came to the United States from another country, Katherine Tabares' family moved here after years of economic hardships to build a better life than that of the one they experienced in Colombia.

When they made it to New York, Tabares didn't speak English, though she learned quickly. She enrolled in high school and made a new set of friends.

But Tabares is an undocumented immigrant, and she said she was was often afraid to talk about her immigration status with others. She sat silently while her parents, who worked as cleaners, were mistreated at their jobs, toiling during long shifts for little pay, she said.

"The main thing that was difficult for me was seeing my family being discriminated against in their jobs just because they didn't have a nine-digit-number, just because they didn't speak the language" Tabares said.

"As an undocumented person, you have a lot of fears of being deported." 

Now 17, Tabares is, in her own words, "undocumented and unafraid," one of many young people of age for the DREAM Act, who say they are still waiting for comprehensive immigration reform.

"There are many things that, as undocumented people, we are denied," Taberas said. "But you know what? We're tired of that."

Under DREAM standards, people who arrived in the United States before the age of 16 and are between the ages of 12 and 35 without felony or major misdemeanor convictions and graduated high school or were in the military would receive permanent residency status in the United States.

The legislation has not passed.

On Tuesday, Tabares was joined by other members of the community at Make the Road New York in Jackson Heights, where neighbors from Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Corona, many of whom were DREAMers, watched President Barack Obama's speech in Las Vegas on immigration reform.

While it's difficult to gauge the undocumented populations of the three neighborhoods, census estimates do show at least part of the picture. Corona, for example, has a foreign-born population of more than 66,000, 44 percent of whom are not citizens. 

In Jackson Heights, the numbers are similar: there are more than 40,000 foreign-born citizens, about 36 percent of whom are not citizens.

And in Elmhurst, there is a foreign-born population of more than 69,000, 41 percent of whom are not citizens.

Some of those men and women were in the audience at Make the Road, listening intently to the President's speech, dubbed for the mostly Spanish-speaking audience as Obama outlined his immigration plan. Some in the crowd held signs reading, "Stop the Deportations," and "Justice for Workers, Dreamers and Families." One man led the crowd in a chant of "¡Si, se puedo!," or, "Yes, we can!"

"We're pushing for immigration reform before June," said Antonio Alarcon, 18. "It's great momentum for President Obama to come out and say he will support immigration reform."

Alarcon moved to the United States in 2005 from Mexico, in a story similar to Taberas'. His family decided to pack up their lives and make the long trip from Vera Cruz to Corona so their son could have better opportunities.

Alarcon said he initially didn't realize the problems he would have to face as an undocumented immigrant. He was just a kid, like everyone else he hung out with.

It wasn't until he was applying for colleges that Alarcon said he first faced barriers because his undocumented status. He wanted to attend college but learned that, because of his undocumented status, he was ineligible for financial aid.

"The counselor [asked] me, 'are you illegal in the United States?' Alarcon said. "She said, 'sorry, you can not apply for any type of scholarship."

Alarcon began to notice other ways in which he says he and his family were discriminated against because of their undocumented status. Like Taberas' parents, his father, who worked in construction, and mother, who worked at a laundromat, both worked 12-hour days and brought home little pay. They, too, moved back to their home country.

Undeterred, Alarcon said he decided to make his own way. He's now a student at LaGuardia Community College, where he's studying broadcast journalism.

Last year, he wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times about Mitt Romney's "self-deportation" comments during the Republican primary.

"You need to be proud of saying you're Latino, and you're undocumented, and you're living without papers in the United States," Alarcon said. "It's pretty awesome that [Obama] will be supporting [a] bill."

The President's speech outlined his ideas to reform the country's immigration policies.

First, Obama said that there should be a continued focus on enforcement of border security. Second, he said there should be a defined pathway to citizenship for those immigrants who are already in the United States and undocumented.

And third, according to the president, there should be improvements to the existing immigration system so that families would not have to spend long periods of time away from each other, and so that young professionals who graduate from American colleges would not be forced to leave the country.

The plan expands upon the President's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals plan in June of 2012, in which he declared that federal Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement services to hold off on pursuing some undocumented immigrants who are eligible for the DREAM act.

The Deferred Action plan was how Yenny Quispe, 21, received her green card on Saturday after 10 years of living undocumented in the United States.

"It's been really hard not being able to work legally," Quispe said.

One of the most frustrating parts, Quispe said, is that many people make assumptions about undocumented immigrants without knowing why they immigrated. Quispe said she fled Peru with her mother and brother to escape their abusive father.

Ten years later, Quispe also attends LaGuardia, an inexpensive option for undocumented immigrants who can't get financial aid. When the opportunity for Deferred Action came, she jumped at it, and earlier this month, she received a letter that said "Welcome to the United States."

Quispe said she is cautiously optimistic that Washington will be able to help more people like her. Although she said she was hoping for a bolder, more specific plan from the President, she thinks that growing pressure from the country's immigrant communities will enact the change she and others like her are looking for.

"We as a community are going to be fighting," Quispe said. "We'll remind him that we're not just believing his words. We're going to do something about it."