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Work begins on interpreting immigration order

State Representative Byron Rushing (center), state Senator Sonia-Chang Diaz, and Vincent W. Lau spoke on Friday about the importance of the president’s action on immigration.David L Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Samantha Almeida went to bed on Thursday night thinking that her life had changed. The 31-year-old undocumented immigrant from Brazil had listened with mounting joy as President Obama announced a sweeping plan to protect millions from deportation — and in her excitement, she believed she met all the criteria.

"I would have a license. I would be able to go to school. I wouldn't be afraid," Almeida said, describing the life that, for a few heady hours, she thought was hers. But when she awoke Friday, a friend showed her the requirements in black and white. Almeida realized she did not meet the criteria after all.


"I'm still in shock," Almeida said Friday, crying softly at a rally in Boston. Her T-shirt depicted a family of three, saved from deportation, holding hands inside a heart. "I feel like I'm dreaming."

One day after Obama announced an executive order to halt deportation and provide work permits for an estimated 5 million undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements, officials, advocates, and immigrants themselves were trying to determine who the order affects, and how it should be implemented.

"It's going to be a lot of work. But we love this work," said Alejandra St. Guillen, director of the Mayor's Office of New Bostonians, which does outreach to immigrants. "These are the moments we feel are crucial."

Obama's order applies to undocumented immigrants whose children are US citizens or legal permanent residents, who pass a criminal background check, and who have lived in the country for at least five years. The order also expands an earlier initiative called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which prevents deportation of people who were brought to the United States as children.

In Boston, St. Guillen said, officials are still working to answer an elemental question: How many people does the order affect?


There are conflicting reports on the number of undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts. The Pew Research Center estimates 150,000 immigrants are undocumented, while the Migration Policy Institute estimates about 185,000.

It is too early to tell how many immigrants will ultimately qualify for the varying forms of relief, but the institute estimates that roughly 65,000 in Massachusetts will fall into both categories. Boston will probably have a large percentage, St. Guillen said.

"It's very hard to get an exact number," she said, though determining such a figure is crucial for planning.

To help immigrants who may be affected, the city will hold information sessions, starting Tuesday with a session at City Hall from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Information about the order will be posted to the city's website and on social media, and the city will work with other outreach and advocacy groups to spread the word.

One concern, St. Guillen said, is that unscrupulous lawyers or notaries could try to take advantage of undocumented immigrants, by charging exorbitant fees to help with paperwork.

Another issue to be ironed out is whether immigrants will be able to get state driver's licenses. After DACA was announced in 2012, Governor Deval Patrick granted recipients licenses and in-state tuition. A Department of Transportation official said Friday that the department had not received notice from the federal government about whether beneficiaries of the new order would qualify for driver's licenses.

A spokesman for Governor-elect Charlie Baker said Baker will need more information on the scope of the new order, and the number of people it affects, before he can make a decision on driver's licenses or in-state tuition.


"Governor-elect Baker celebrates the fact that we are a nation of immigrants and believes comprehensive immigration reform, passed by Congress to protect the border and keep families together, is long overdue," spokesman Tim Buckley said. "The Governor-elect feels some members of Congress' threats to bog down Washington D.C. in response to the President's actions are as ill-advised as this sweeping, unilateral action where compromise legislation is the appropriate solution to the broken immigration system."

While city, state, and federal officials began working out details of implementation, immigration advocates Friday grappled with the impact of the order on a smaller, more heartwrenching, scale.

One phone call undid Gladys Ortiz, legal advocate coordinator for the nonprofit REACH Beyond Domestic Violence. Many of the men and women Ortiz represents, she said, are undocumented, and their abusers often use their status against them as a weapon.

On Friday morning, one of her clients, a woman who has lived here for 17 years and is still with her abuser, called her, frantic and hopeful.

"Please tell me that I qualify," the woman begged Ortiz. But the woman had arrived in America as an adult, and her child was not born here, and Ortiz could tell by the tone of her voice that the woman already knew the answer. Ortiz gently asked her if she had watched Obama's speech. The woman said yes. Then you already know, Ortiz told her.


"She broke in tears, and she said, 'But I still have hope that you could find a way that I qualify,' " Ortiz said. After that, she could not bear to pick up her phone again.

Maria Sacchetti, Jessica Meyers and Evan Horowitz of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Evan Allen can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen.