For so many people — people like Conrado Santos — the news that they may soon be able to legally stay in the United States stirred up a host of emotions that boiled down to one: relief.
No more worries about being discovered, no more hesitation to board a flight. No more of the chronic concerns that are completely foreign to so many of us.
“For me, this is huge,” said Santos, 24. “It’s a life-changer. My parents live in Florida and I don’t see them very often. Now I’m going to be able to go through security at an airport and not worry about being deported.”
Santos is active in the Student Immigration Movement, a group that has pushed for immigration overhaul, including passage of the Dream Act, a federal law that has been stalled in Congress. This decision achieves many, though not all, of the goals of that legislation.
He came to the United States at 13, and eventually attended Somerville High and UMass Boston before dropping out for financial reasons. His first political meeting came during his junior year in high school, where a group of immigrant youths got together.
“We didn’t really talk about our [immigration] status then; we weren’t very open about it,” he said. “It was a very small meeting — there were about half a dozen of us in the room. But for the first time in my life here, I didn’t have to hide. That was very powerful.”
President Obama announced on Friday that the country would stop deporting young people who have not committed any crimes and meet a number of other conditions. To qualify, one must have entered the country before the age of 16, must be 30 or younger, must be a high school student or graduate, or have served in the military. The decision is expected to affect hundreds of thousands of immigrants.
Aside from ending deportations, Obama’s decision means young illegal immigrants can apply for legal status and work permits, a dramatic change in status. Some view it as a bid by Obama for Latino votes, and they certainly have a point. But its impact promises to be far broader than that.
“This is not just a big deal for Latinos,” declared Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum. Though now based in Washington, Noorani cut his teeth as an activist in Boston. “If you hold a Bible, wear a badge, or own a business, you want a solution to the immigration dilemma.”
Not surprisingly, the decision was not universally applauded. Among its critics was Senator Scott Brown, who announced almost immediately that he opposed both the goal of the order and the way in which it was accomplished.
Mitt Romney, our former governor and current presidential candidate, was more measured. Actually, he was measured almost to the point of saying nothing. He issued a me-too statement saying he agreed with Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who said the president’s unilateral action could make it more difficult for Congress to reach a long-term solution to the immigration mess.
The truth is that Congress stopped trying for a legislative solution several years ago, when Republican lawmakers decided their supporters didn’t want one. Some Democrats were similarly ambivalent. Beacon Hill’s resounding rejection of in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants was a vivid testament to the bipartisan cowardice on this issue.
Still, it never made much sense to deport people who came here because their families brought them here, and whose fondest desire is to make their lives here. The fact that illegal immigrants can serve in the military speaks to our profound national confusion on the question.
Friday brought a welcome moment of clarity, no matter what inspired it. “I don’t even know how to drive, and I’d like to learn,” Santos told me. “It’s just little things.”
Except that coming out of the shadows is not a little thing.
Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.