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Obama's next big challenge on immigration is bigger than politics

Last night, President Obama conducted a town hall on immigration in Miami. Media coverage of how the town hall went has already split into at least two camps. MSNBC, which aired the debate (along with its affiliated Spanish-language network Telemundo), described Obama as "fiery" in attacking Republicans on immigration. Other outlets, like Time Magazine, focused on the questions that Obama got asked by attendees — and characterized the president as reassuring, trying to "stave off deportation woes."

The thing is that both of those are true. The president was both fiery and reassuring last night — and he'll probably continue to be both, as he continues an outreach campaign to educate immigrants about his 2014 executive actions offering protection from deportation to millions. That's because, with those executive actions temporarily blocked by a federal judge, the president needs to sell two different messages — which are often at odds with each other.

Instead of taking a victory lap, the administration wants to be forceful in blaming Republicans for blocking the president, and keeping millions of immigrants from applying for protection from deportation. That's where the "fiery" comes in: Obama blamed the lawsuit on "Republican governors," accused congressional Republicans of holding funding for the Department of Homeland Security "hostage," and promised to veto any bill that forced him to stop his executive actions.

And instead of urging immigrants to come out of the shadows under his plan, he has to mitigate fear and anxiety in the immigrant community that might keep people from applying even if the programs are allowed to go forward: the "chilling effect." That fear was noticeable in the town hall on Wednesday, with the president receiving multiple questions from attendees about whether their family members — some of whom would qualify for relief under the executive actions, and some of whom wouldn't — would be deported.

immigration demonstration thank you

About 100 people gather to rally in support of President Barack Obama's executive action on immigration policy in Lafayette Square across from the White House. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

This outreach campaign has set up a big task for Obama as he tries to make good on promises to the Latino community that helped send him to the White House twice. It might be an impossible one. After all, it puts him squarely in the middle of a challenge that's faced immigrants and activists for years: how to be honest about the fear that unauthorized immigrants live under, without making that fear something that defines them. It's a tension in how the public sees immigrants — and in how immigrants see themselves.

The dilemma's already causing tensions between Democrats (and Democratic-aligned advocacy groups) and other immigrant rights groups. Adrian Carrasquillo wrote about this Tuesday for BuzzFeed, quoting Erika Andiola of DRM Action Coalition:

Andiola said the organizations who work very closely with the Democratic Party see it as a huge opportunity to attack Republicans for their opposition.

"Which is true, but for many of us it’s, ‘OK, but how are you guys going to do that without scaring people on the ground?’" she said. "They’re thinking, ‘This is going to be over, if it comes out should we even apply?’"

The fear of deportation, and the obstacles unauthorized immigrants face, are real, and important. That's why the stakes of the current battle over the president's executive actions are high: it's clear that the immigrants who are affected won't be the ones the government wants to target for deportation, but years of harsh enforcement and poorly-implemented enforcement "priorities" have made it so many immigrants don't feel safe unless they're being explicitly protected from deportation. But how do you acknowledge that without making immigrants seem, or feel, like passive victims who have no control over their own lives? How do you make it clear that the fear of deportation is legitimate, but it doesn't need to define someone's life?

undocumented unafraid

(sarah-ji/Flickr)

If you want a picture of how this tension can play out in the life of a single immigrant, you need to read Bloomberg Business' fantastic new profile of Julissa Arce, a woman who went from running a food cart in San Antonio on weekends in college to becoming a director of derivatives at Goldman Sachs — while working under a fake green card. (She's since gotten a legitimate green card through her husband, become a US citizen, and left finance to work for the advocacy group Define American.)

Arce is a self-described "A-type personality," a CrossFitter who stuck out at Goldman Sachs for being even more driven than her peers. In other words, she's an unusually ambitious person. And she believed, as a child, that that would be her ticket out. She told Bloomberg, "if I can work my way into this wealth and status, then it won’t matter that I’m undocumented." In an interview with Vox on Wednesday, she presented her ambition in a different light: "I had no choice but to be optimistic. i had to believe that a miracle would happen...I had to believe that there was a god that was going to deliver me and going to protect me."

But while Arce got the wealth and status, it wasn't enough to save her from stigma. It didn't allow her to see her father before his death in Mexico in 2007, as recounted in the Bloomberg profile. And when the IRS started sending her letters, Arce became anxious and traumatized. She told me this afternoon that for years, she suffered from "debilitating back pain" that could keep her lying on the floor for three hours at a time, and that she had to get epidural injections for.

Of course, Arce's story has a happy ending — she didn't get deported, and found someone she wanted to marry. But she also stressed to me that her family deserves a lot of credit for helping her get where she is today. "It took a whole village! I'm not the only one who made sacrifices," she says. "My parents made a huge sacrifice in going back to Mexico" when she was still in school.

That sacrifice kept her from worrying that her actions would get her family deported. But it was especially poignant because Arce credits her mother with giving her the drive to succeed to begin with: "My mom was the biggest believer in the American dream. She has always said to me 'where there's a will, there's a way...do your best at the things that you can control and everything else will fall into place.'"

Oscar Hernandez

Oscar Hernandez speaks at an Own the Dream event (Own the Dream)

For every Julissa Arce, there are countless children who are told that they can't try to get wealth and status because of their immigration status. Many of them get that message from their own parents, who are unauthorized immigrants themselves and have learned to keep their heads down. As Oscar Hernandez, who's an organizer with the Own the Dream program (which helps unauthorized immigrants who are eligible for President Obama's existing deportation-relief program with their applications), told me last summer:

"The discussion in my house was, ‘You don't get noticed. Because if you do something awesome and great, you might get noticed, and if you do get noticed, they might find out that we're here undocumented, and if they find we out we could get separated.' It was never a discussion we had, but that was the unwritten rule for our house. You don't do bad things, but you also don't do good things. You stay under the radar, you work, and that's it." ...

Hernandez later discovered that he could stand up for himself, and got involved in organizing on behalf of young unauthorized immigrants. Many members of his generation — who are the generation covered by President Obama's existing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — have similar stories, and many have gone on to impressive careers (even without fake green cards).

"Out there I know that there's another 6-year-old whose parents have no idea what help is available to them," says Hernandez. They need someone, he says, to tell them, "‘If you're great, show off your skills. Be great. Be awesome. And you can get all the help you need. This shouldn't be something that should stop you.'"

As I explain in more depth in my feature from last year, getting temporary protection from deportation and a work permit from the government can be an important step in helping an immigrant get rid of his fear. But it isn't the first step: immigrants already need to feel empowered and safe to even submit an application to the government to begin with. And it isn't the last step: everything from affording application fees and tuition, to getting involved at a child's school, requires more confidence than just a piece of paper from the government can provide.

Arce told me that she and Define American tried to get other immigrants who have temporary protections under DACA, or even legal visas, to participate in the Bloomberg article. But "they still didn't want to be named." That's why she's gone into advocacy, she says: "For us at Define American, that's the biggest thing. Until we change the culture, policies can't integrate us."

But it's definitely important. And for millions of unauthorized immigrants, it's just not clear right now when, or if, that protection will ever be available to them.

This is the dilemma that President Obama faces as he continues his outreach efforts. He has to be honest about the uncertainty facing his executive actions, and he's politically obligated to blaming Republicans for it. But it's easy for uncertainty to be disempowering. President Obama can't let that happen for the long-term success of his deferred action program, if the courts do let it get off the ground. But even beyond a single program, if the president and Democrats care about making unauthorized immigrants better able to succeed in America, they need to be sure they're encouraging them to take charge and be unafraid.