Supreme Court vote dashes hopes of immigrants here illegally

Carlos Rojas holds son Michael, 11, during a news conference at which activists and immigrants voiced their opinions on the 4-4 Supreme Court ruling.

Thursday was a bad day for undocumented immigrants, among them Carlos Rojas.

In the two decades since he illegally entered the United States from Mexico, Rojas, 44, has made a decent life for himself in South Philadelphia, working as a pastry chef and raising a family - while putting the ever-present possibility of deportation as far from his thoughts as he could.

He found hope in a 2014 executive action by President Obama that would have protected him, as the parent of an American-born child, from being sent back to his homeland.

The Supreme Court's 4-4 decision Thursday blocked that action.

Rojas broke down in tears as he recounted his young son's naive attempt to comfort him. The boy told his father "he wished he was older," Rojas said, "so he could give me papers."

Reactions of frustration, anger and anxiety erupted among undocumented immigrants across the region after the high court effectively quashed two Obama executive actions that would have shielded them - and millions more in the U.S. illegally - from deportation.

"We are disappointed that the Supreme Court fell victim to the political machinations of anti-immigrant forces," Sundrop Carter, executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, an advocacy group, said in a statement.

"In this contentious election year, immigrant communities will be registering eligible citizen voters and making sure that all immigrant and New American communities are turning out to vote to send a clear message: Immigrant families demand an immediate end to unjust deportations and for Congress to finally pass humane immigration reform."

The court's ruling "is a huge disappointment," said David Bennion, an immigration attorney in Philadelphia, whose caseload includes about 70 clients who would have benefited had the Obama policies been affirmed. "They were just waiting for some type of relief, and this is just really hard for them to hear."

With all the suspense about when and how the Supreme Court would rule, Olivia Ponce said, she has been losing sleep for weeks.

She came to America illegally from Mexico. At 40, she lives in South Philadelphia with her 22-year-old daughter, also born in Mexico and also named Olivia, and her son, Boris, 13, a U.S. citizen. Ponce, as his mother, would have qualified for protection from deportation. Self-employed cleaning houses and a few local bars, she would have looked for a better job, she said. But the court's ruling upended her plans, leaving her "angry and in limbo."

At a news conference at the South Philadelphia office of Juntos, a support group that advocates for Latino-immigrant rights, member Miguel Andrade said, "We're tired of living in fear. We're tired of living in shadows."

Rallies will be held across Pennsylvania next week to inform immigrant communities about the consequences of the court's ruling and build support, Andrade said.

"This is not a political issue. This is a human rights issue," he said, "and it needs to be seen and treated as such."

Drexel University law professor Anil Kalhan, an expert on immigration issues, said the Supreme Court's decision "sharpens what's at stake in the upcoming presidential election." During the campaigns, he said, immigration has been a lightning rod.

Pennsylvania's undocumented population is estimated at 136,000. Approximately 15,000 of them were younger than 16 when brought to this country illegally, which would have made them eligible for protection under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), put forth by Obama in 2012. Through DACA, they could have received a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation. A 2014 extension, called DACA-Plus, would have made an additional 4,000 childhood arrivals eligible.

Another 2014 Obama action that ended with the Supreme Court ruling was Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA). In Pennsylvania, 32,000 undocumented parents of Americans and green-card holders could have gotten temporary protection from deportation.

New Jersey has an undocumented population of 509,000, according to an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute. Under both DACA iterations combined, 63,000 childhood arrivals would have been eligible. DAPA would have covered approximately 133,000 parents of U.S. citizens or green card holders.

In Delaware, which has 22,000 undocumented immigrants, about 2,000 childhood arrivals would have been eligible under DACA and DACA-Plus, and about 7,000 undocumented parents under DAPA.

"Today, Philadelphia families are more angry than fearful," said Erika Almiron, executive director of Juntos. They "are tired of waiting to have justice in this country, of being political footballs."

Maria Sotomayor, 24, was 9 when her parents brought her to the U.S. illegally from Ecuador. Therefore, she qualified for DACA 2012. And her parents, a house painter and housekeeper who live in Broomall, would have been eligible for DAPA because another daughter had been born here.

Sotomayor's voice choked with tears.

"I'm very upset," she said. "Not only for my family, but for our whole community. I wish that my parents were here so I could give them hugs and kisses. But they are working."

mmatza@phillynews.com

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@MichaelMatza1

Staff writer Olivia Exstrum contributed to this article.