'Gracias Obama!' Immigrants React To Executive Action Speech

Image: People chant during a demonstration in front of the White House

People chant during a demonstration in front of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014, as President Barack Obama announced executive actions on immigration during a nationally televised address. Alex Brandon / AP

WASHINGTON -- Bundled in winter coats, dozens of immigrants stood in front of the White House to watch and hear President Barack Obama via livestream on tablets and cell phones explain why he is taking executive action on immigration.

Huddling tightly around their mobile devices, those gathered let out occasional cheers and whoops as the president's speech unfolded.

Some held battery-operated tea lights while some held American flags and signs that said "Gracias, Presidente Obama" with outlines of hand-holding families along the bottom.

Image: A demonstrator holds a sign reading "Thank you President Obama" outside the White House
A demonstrator holds a sign reading "Thank you President Obama" outside the White House after Obama announced executive action on immigration on Thursday evening. Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News

Some chanted, "Obama, Amigo, El Pueblo esta contigo!", which means, "Obama, Friend, The Community Is With You!

When his speech ended, some shouted, "Si se pudo!" which means, "Yes, we could!"

"Oh my God, this is good!" shouted Miguel Correa, an immigrant who has been in the U.S. illegally for 14 years. "Thanks, Obama!"

In a brief, 10-minute speech, Obama laid out a case for issuing executive actions that would spare about 5 million immigrants from deportation. The president outlined a 3-part plan which included more resources for the border, as well as relief from deportation for parents who have been illegally in the U.S. for more than 5 years but whose children are citizens or lawful permanent residents. The president emphasized this is not a path to citizenship or legalization, but those who qualify will be granted relief from deportation for three years and get work permits.

Image: People watch President Barack Obama give a speech on executive action on immigration outside the White House on Thursday, Nov. 20.
People watch President Barack Obama give a speech on executive action on immigration outside the White House on Thursday, Nov. 20. Pablo Manriquez / NBC News

Obama also broadened deferred deportation for young immigrants. Instead of eligibility for young people who came to the U.S. before 2007, it will now extend to 2010, and applicants no longer have to be under 31.

While executive action would apply to less than half of the estimated 11 million immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally, for immigrants like Correa, the announcement was a life-changing event.

“The president is giving me a shot,”said Correa, 32, of Stafford, Va. “This is going to help me by being able to get my plumbing license and register my business in a better way with the county, [and] with the state," said Correa, adding it would help him get better contracts and maybe even be able to hire more people.

Several months ago Janet Murguia, executive director of the National Council of La Raza,referred to Obama as "Deporter in Chief" as frustration built over the lack of action on immigration. But after the President's speech, Murguia said it was a victory for common sense.

"I thought it was very compelling, very powerful and very reaffirming - this is a milestone moment for so many millions of American families who have lived in the shadows," Murguia said on MSNBC.

Correa was happy that this was his chance to step out of the shadows and eventually be able to join family members who are American citizens. He said he has been active in the push for immigration reform since hundreds of thousands of immigrants flooded the streets of major U.S. cities in 2006 rallying for reform.

“I’ve been pushing for people to go out in the street and rally with us. I’ve been in this for a long time," he said.
Correa said he has not been mad at Obama, even if his executive action took longer than immigrants wanted. In fact, if he saw Obama on the street at that moment, “I would go and approach him and say Mr. Obama, I would like to shake your hand and tell you that you did the right thing and that my daughter, my mother, my brothers, my nephews are going to really be thankful for the action you took today.”

Carlos Gaitan and his wife Fatima Benavides, both of Washington, D.C., wore broad smiles as they stood with their two U.S. citizen sons, ages 8 and 3, near the cheering crowd. Gaitan, who does home improvement work, and Benavides, a nanny, said their smiles were for what Obama was doing for them.

“We feel happy because we are going to be beneficiaries, but at the same time, we think that we could see something permanent and something that could help everyone,” Gaitan said. “We are hopeful and confident the Congress is going to open its eyes.”

This is the same sentiment that Alma Reyes, of Corona, N.Y., expressed earlier to NBC News as she was waiting for the speech. Though Reyes will be eligible for executive action due to the fact her children are citizens, she was sad for her friend, an immigrant from Paraguay who has been in the country illegally for 13 years. Though her friend works hard and is active in her church, she is single and does not have children and does not qualify under Obama's executive action.

"It broke my heart," said Reyes, when she had to tell her friend she probably would not qualify for deportation relief. Reyes said she knew many immigrants in her church and neighborhood in that situation.

"Unfortunately," she said, "they won't have the hope, but I don't lose hope for them."