Karen Bardales of Kansas City was 14 years old when, more than 11 years ago, her economically strapped parents illegally brought her and her older brother into the United States for a better life.
Her father, an accountant in Honduras, worked construction here six or seven days a week. Bardales graduated from Shawnee Mission North and went on to get her college degree.
Her brother graduated from Raytown South High School and was operating a forklift until a speeding ticket uncovered his illegal status.
“My brother was deported a year and a half ago,” Bardales said.
So it was with mixed feelings Thursday that Bardales, 25, awaited President Barack Obama’s address to the nation in which he declared his intention to sign an executive action Friday that would shield from deportation, and provide work permits to, as many as 5 million of the 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally.
“It is good,” Bardales said. “But it is a little bit too late for my brother.”
Her mixture of wariness and joy was voiced by many in the Kansas City area, including employers, politicians and others involved with the Hispanic community or issues of immigration.
Obama’s action primarily will protect parents who remain undocumented in the U.S. but gave birth to children here — children who are U.S. citizens.
The move is the biggest since 2012, when the Department of Homeland Security issued an action known as DACA — Deferred Action for Children Arrivals — that granted temporary legal status, renewable every two years, to millions of children, including Bardales, who met certain age and other guidelines.
Like Bardales, Viviana Rodriguez, 18 and a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School, had hoped the president’s action would include the undocumented parents of DACA children. It would have been an even bigger step forward, said Rodriguez, who has legal status under DACA.
“They could actually start working here at better jobs,” Rodriguez said.
Said Bardales, “Basically, right now, I’m the only one in my household driving. I don’t let my parents drive too much, because I’m scared.”
She’s afraid, she said, that what happened to her brother could happen to her parents, too.
Bardales and Rodriguez are still anxious knowing that Obama’s executive action is not a law and could be rescinded in two years by a different president with differing views on immigration.
“We applaud the president. It is a bold move. It is big move. But it is also temporary and could go away. That’s the dilemma,” said Irene Caudillo, president of El Centro Inc., a community and social service organization that serves the Hispanic community throughout the Kansas City area.
In Kansas, Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach said Thursday, before the president’s announcement, that he would already be an active participant in lawsuits challenging the action within the next few days or weeks. He called the executive order clearly illegal and accused the president of “shredding the Constitution.”
“My main concerns are constitutional and legal,” he said. “I hope Republicans, Democrats and independents alike can agree on this: If Congress were to pass an amnesty, I think that would be a bad idea but at least it would be legitimate and it would be an act of Congress, and it would be something we could all respect as the law of the land. This is a completely illegitimate executive action that is in violation of the U.S. Constitution. That’s my number one concern.”
His other concerns:
“It’s taking jobs (from Americans), but the other big problem is it will immediately cause a mass influx of more aliens to come in,” Kobach said. “It’s a myth that you can grant amnesty and that you magically know when that person arrived in the United States. ... This amnesty will cause a wave in the next 12 months who will come in and claim ‘Oh, yes. I was here.’”
But U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat from Kansas City, said the president’s announcement will provide relief to millions of hard-working, law-abiding immigrant families while other provisions will help secure the border.
“Our immigration system is broken and the American people overwhelmingly support reform,” Cleaver said in Washington, “but our partisan politics have precluded progress in Congress.”
In a written statement, Cleaver defended the executive action. “There is precedent of previous presidents acting alone on immigration,” he wrote, “but some of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are threatening a shutdown now that President Obama is taking action.”
Laurie Anderson, director of the Immigrant Justice Advocacy Movement, a faith-based and immigrant-led group in Kansas City, called the executive order “ a victory of sorts.”
“Clearly, it gives approximately 5 million people status in the country. That is all very good,” she said.
“There is hope in having people being able to come out of the shadows they are currently in. Anytime we can realize that we’re talking about human beings and not just policy, and realize how people’s lives can be enriched, that is a good thing.”
Her concerns are broad and specific. Broad, because relief from deportation for some is not an actual path to citizenship.
“For me, knowing that there are still going to be people deported, that is the ongoing terrorism in this country. We celebrate this and give it the hope it is due, but there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Specifically, she too worries about the possible temporary nature of the action. The hope among advocates of immigration reform, she said, is that once the order has taken effect, rescinding it would become politically difficult.
Erika Noguera, a community development advocate and organizer who works with Kansas City’s Hispanic residents, said, “I think everyone’s hopeful that we will see positive momentum and that reversing it would be impossible to do.”
Noguera said of the president: “I’m proud of him for being willing to step up and take action. … It’s not just a social justice and equity issue, it’s a humanitarian issue related to families and children being separated, children growing up not knowing any stability in their lives.”
Dave Elliott, president in Lenexa of Construction & Planning Services Inc., a construction company nearly 50 years old, has his own mixed feelings about the order.
“It’s kind of a funny deal,” he said. “I’m a little fearful that the president is taking too much range in his executive actions. That part bothers me, because it seems to be stronger and stronger. They are not little executive actions. They are major sweeping things.”
At the same time, Elliott said that he has struggled mightily in recent years to compete financially with other construction companies that hire undocumented workers and thus bid lower on jobs.
“I see a serious need to be able to get these individuals work visas and assimilate them,” he said. “It’s more than just leveling the playing field. There are people out there just abusing these guys, working them 12-hour days, six days a week, for cheap labor.”
Henri Watson, a trial attorney in the firm Watson & Dameron, which performs immigration law, said he understands why immigration advocates might have doubts regarding the impact of the executive action. He recalled that before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there seemed to be political movement in easing the path to citizenship. Afterward, U.S. immigration policy turned toward clamping down.
“Since that time,” Watson said, “there has not been anything happening except the actions taken by Obama. I understand that people would be leery and skeptical. But, the truth is, everyone I have spoken to is actually excited. This is a huge step. Let’s see how it plays out.”
Wendy Medina, founder of a social justice group known as One Struggle KC, said that while she recognizes the advance in immigration policy that the executive action represents, she is hardly willing to hand the president any awards.
“I mean, I’m not actually applauding the president because he took forever to make a decision about immigration,” she said. “His lack of action has caused a lot of suffering in our community.”
Among those sufferers, she said, was a dear friend whose mother was in Mexico and, while there, became ill with cancer and died before her daughter could see her.
“I’m happy for those who will be legalized after this announcement,” she said. “But in his term, we have had a historical number of deportations. This is great and this will shield a few million people. Ultimately, his decision and his executive order is a bit late for many folks.”
The Star’s Dave Helling and Lindsay Wise, The Star’s Washington correspondent, contributed to this report.