EVERETT — Few were as excited about Election Day as Moises Herrera. He did not run for office. He cannot even vote. But reaching Tuesday’s election, he hopes, will set in motion actions that will allow him to stay in the country.
The minivan-driving father from El Salvador has no criminal record, but for years he has cycled in and out of detention for civil immigration violations, including last month, when he was in Suffolk County jail instead of the delivery room where his son was born.
Now Herrera is among millions of immigrants nationwide waiting for President Obama to keep his promise to issue an executive order sparing them from deportation, an order that the president and his aides had put off until after the election.
“It’s the great hope,” Herrera, a 36-year-old father of four, said in an interview on Election Day, days after immigration officials released him. “There are many, many people in that jail, and they are waiting for that day.”
On Wednesday, Obama said he would not wait for Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration bill to deal with the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants and declared that he would take action by the end of the year.
The Republican-led House had refused to consider a bipartisan Senate immigration bill passed last year that created a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. After the GOP won control of the Senate on Tuesday, advocates for immigrants feared the measure’s chances dimmed even more — putting greater pressure on Obama to act unilaterally.
House Speaker John Boehner warned Obama on Thursday that Congress, where Republicans now have a majority, would fight Obama’s efforts to act on immigration. Boehner echoed similar comments made the day before by Senator Mitch McConnell, who is expected to become the majority leader.
Opponents to relaxed immigration restrictions said bypassing Congress effectively excludes the American people from the debate at a time when millions of Americans are unemployed.
“If he gives out work permits and gives out legal documents that actually say you can be legalized, that is pretending he’s Congress,” said Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, the largest grass-roots organization favoring limits on immigration, adding, “It’s not his alone to decide.”
But backers of a change in immigration policy counter that the president has ample precedent to act on his own. Obama and past presidents have granted special legal status to immigrants fleeing violence, repression, or natural disasters, including Cubans, Central Americans, and in 2012, the foreign-born children of illegal immigrants, who call themselves Dreamers.
Advocates said the Republicans’ resounding victory proved that it was senseless to wait until after the elections for the president to take action.
“What do we have to lose?” said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, which favors a path to citizenship for those here illegally. “It’s time to stop the political theater and get serious about what’s needed for the country.”
In Everett, the national debate has a real consequence in Herrera’s circumstances.
Herrera said he came to America in 2005 because of poverty and fear. He had been a semi-professional soccer player in El Salvador, but he left school after fifth grade to work, earning $5 a day, first at a factory that made clothing for US retailers and then planting corn. Violent gangs had a chokehold on his home state of La Libertad, which the State Department says has higher homicide rates than the national average in El Salvador.
He crossed the border during a tropical storm, spending nights knee deep in flooded houses and hiking during the day without food. His brother, Juan Antonio, disappeared while making the same risky journey after him.
Herrera said he took the risk to provide for his family; besides his wife, Mirna, and their newborn son, he has a stepson and two daughters.
“I don’t want them to have the life I lived,” he said.
Herrera made it, but border agents quickly detained him. He admits he skipped his immigration court hearing, fearing deportation, and found work in Massachusetts. Salvadoran soccer fans embraced him; they found him work painting houses and in a bakery and recruited him for their soccer teams. A table in his living room overflows with trophies.
The money he sent home to El Salvador improved his daughters’ lives but also made them a target. In 2007, he said, gangs called his daughters’ grandparents and threatened to kill the girls if Herrera did not pay $1,000. He paid and quickly found them a new place to live.
In Massachusetts, Herrera was at constant risk of deportation. In 2011, after a traffic stop in Everett, he was jailed and deported, but he returned to the state within weeks.
In October, immigration officials jailed him again after another traffic stop. Police said Herrera ran a light and gave a false first name and birth date and was driving without a license. A district court judge dismissed the charges and Immigration and Customs Enforcement took him into custody. Herrera matched ICE’s priorities because he returned to the US after being deported, a federal crime.
Nobody ever charged him. Instead, immigration officials detained Herrera for more than two weeks, through the birth of his son, and released him after he hired a lawyer and the Globe inquired about his case.
ICE spokesman Daniel Modricker said they released Herrera after his lawyer wrote a letter highlighting “a number of significant factors that previously were not disclosed.”
Modricker did not elaborate, but the letter detailed Herrera’s fear of gangs in El Salvador and the fact that ICE had only a few weeks earlier released his 17-year-old daughter, who lives with Herrera. She was among the surge of minors from Central America who crossed the US border last summer.
“At times, and often at the last minute, factors previously unknown are brought to ICE’s attention, as was the case in this instance,” Modricker said in a statement, responding to a request to explain the decision behind Herrera’s release. “ICE gives these factors the appropriate consideration.”
Herrera’s lawyer, Jeffrey B. Rubin, said Herrera’s release shows the urgency of having a lawyer because most detainees face deportation without one. “Without an advocate, it’s very possible he’d be put on an airplane and sent back to El Salvador and never have the ability to meet his newborn child,” he said. “Thank goodness ICE was able to see the humanitarian side of this.”
ICE granted him a one-year stay of deportation, leaving Herrera to see what’s next.
“I hope I get to stay,” Herrera said, cradling his son, swaddled in a blue blanket emblazoned with soccer balls. “We’ll see what the president says.”