This article is part of a weekly series published in partnership with the Boyle Heights Beat. It appears every Wednesday.
By Jessica Perez
When the Obama Administration announced in August that undocumented students and other "low-priority" immigrants would no longer be targeted for deportation, Isaac Barrera did not have a chance to react.
That's because the undocumented college student from Boyle Heights was in Los Angeles County Jail, in the middle of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) interviews and fearful that he was on the verge of being deported.
On the night of August 17, 2011, Barrera, 20, was pulled over by a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy on Cesar Chavez Avenue and Mission Road and arrested for an outstanding warrant for failure to appear in court after a traffic violation. It's the kind of chance encounter with legal authorities that has snared many without papers.
"I felt alone," said Barrera. "I was mentally preparing myself to be there for two months."
Barrera, brought to the U.S. from Mexico by his parents when he was three years old, is now a Pasadena City College student and an advocate for immigrant rights such as the DREAM Act, which proposes to grant undocumented students like him conditional permanent residency.
He had already learned about ICE procedures firsthand earlier, when he was arrested during an immigrant rights protest. However, this time, his arrest came just as the Department of Homeland Security ushered in an important change to its handling of deportation cases.
Under the newly announced rules, many undocumented immigrants who face deportation could have the chance to stay in this country and apply for a work permit.
Some 300,000 deportation cases will be reviewed to identify those who are "low priority" offenders including those without criminal records; youth who arrived here as children and those who served in the U.S. military or their families. The focus of deportation efforts will be on those convicted of crimes or who pose a security risk.
The new rules prompted sharp criticism from immigration reform opponents who call them a de facto change in immigration law that goes around Congress. Steven Camarota, Director of Research for the Center for Immigration Studies told KPCC radio's Larry Mantle that deporting the "worst of the worst" makes sense but that the President's actions to choose who gets deported were "fundamentally lawless" because they ignore current immigration laws.
Recently, the administration has been under fire from the other side of the political aisle too, for another immigration enforcement program, Secure Communities. Immigrant rights advocates say the program, which allows local and state police to provide immigration authorities with fingerprints of those arrested, puts non-violent offenders in the same category as criminals.
Proponents of immigration reform such as Rep Luis V. Gutierrez of Illinois, praised the new procedures. Gutierrez, a Latino leader who has been arrested in pro-immigrant rights protests told the New York Times:
"This is the Barack Obama I have been waiting for; that Latino and immigrant voters helped put in office to fight for sensible immigration policies."
For Barrera, the Boyle Heights college student, Obama's newly announced plan to focus on deporting criminals seem like a bid to gain Latino support, as he prepares for reelection.
"I can't really trust Obama and his word," said Barrera who was released two days after his arrest.
While the new rules could potentially lead to the suspension of deportation proceedings against thousands of immigrants in the next months, it's unclear if the new rules led to Barrera's release. Barrera is more inclined to credit a campaign organized by the immigrant rights community, which included petitions and phone calls.
He hopes the new rules stick.
"I call the U.S. my home. I've been here since as long as I could remember. I don't know any other place but here, I don't know anywhere else."
Jessica Perez is a digital journalist covering community news in Los Angeles. She is currently the online editor of BoyleHeightsBeat.com and its sister website PulsodeBoyleHeights.com. She holds a BA in Broadcast Journalism from California State University, Long Beach and a Journalism Certificate from UCLA Extension. You can find local reporting and multimedia work she's produced on her hyperlocal arts and culture blog, MisNeighbors.com.
This article was produced for BoyleHeightsBeat, which features the stories and blogs of community members in the Latino immigrant neighborhood of Boyle Heights, in Los Angeles, as well as the articles produced by the youth reporting staff of the Boyle Heights Beat, a bilingual quarterly newspaper and a project of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism and La Opinion.