LAS VEGAS — Dallamy Santos said she knows what it's like when immigration status tears a family apart. The Las Vegas casino worker experienced it when her husband had to go back to Mexico and wait indefinitely until he was cleared to return to the U.S.
Santos struggled to explain his absence to her 3-year-old son and lost weight worrying during the two-month ordeal. When she heard this week that President Barack Obama would sign an order granting temporary legal status to millions of immigrants, she thought of the separated families she knows.
"I was jumping and screaming and doing everything," said Santos, 35. "Many families won't go through what I went through."
Santos was one of hundreds of people who came to Del Sol High School in Las Vegas on Friday to hear Obama explain more about his unilateral immigration reform plan. It's the same place he visited nearly two years earlier to unveil a blueprint for comprehensive immigration reform that later stalled in the House.
Obama's latest actions aim to defer deportation and offer work permits for nearly 5 million people who are in the country illegally. They would mainly cover parents of U.S. citizens and of legal residents as long as the parents have been in the U.S. for five years or more.
The Friday speech drew a heckler, later identified as a 25-year-old DREAMer from Arizona, who called out to the president asking why his mother wasn't eligible.
"Not everyone will qualify," Obama conceded. "That's the truth. Listen, I heard you and what I'm saying is we're still going to have to pass a bill."
The president argued that deporting all 11 million people who are in the U.S. illegal would be impossible and would contradict the country's immigrant-friendly values. He said his executive actions were limited and added that Congress still needed to act to implement certain key reforms, including a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants.
That led to raucous cheers of "pass a bill!" from the audience, which consisted largely of Del Sol High School juniors and seniors.
Obama's appearance drew several dozen protesters who lined up across the street from the school and held signs saying "Oust Obama" and "Deport Obama."
One of them was Stasyi Barth, who came from Murrieta, California, to express her frustration over high unemployment, crowded schools and other problems she linked to illegal immigration.
"I want to know why people who came here illegally are more important than people who are here," said Barth, 41. "Everyone's suffering. There's a legal way to do it. Why are they being rewarded?"
The problem could be solved if existing laws are better enforced, she said.
But others cheered the speech.
Maria Ortiz, who works as a janitor in Los Angeles, said she'll be eligible for legal status through the program and plans to visit her parents in Puebla, Mexico, for the first time in decades once she gets it. "I've been waiting for 22 years. I'm very excited," said Ortiz, 49.
Ariana Delgado, 16, said Obama's speech touched a nerve at her predominantly Hispanic high school, where many students have a parent who's living in the shadows. "He understands," she said.