Immigration policy in the United States has been an ongoing debate in Washington for years and is a major point of contention between President Barack Obama and Republicans.
However, the main goal of both parties is largely the same: to keep unauthorized migrants out of the country, and increase national security measures in order to do so.
As the parties battle it out as to the extent of these measures, the lives of millions hang in the balance.
There are approximately 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in the United States; most are people who entered the country seeking jobs and better opportunities for themselves and their families.
The vast majority of these migrants come from Mexico and Central America, namely El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras; post-conflict countries that experience high levels of gang violence, poverty, and unemployment. But far from encountering a promised land when they arrive in the U.S., working conditions for undocumented immigrants there are precarious.
Also see teleSUR’s Agenda piece: Six Years of Obama
Aura Bogado, news editor for Colorlines, a magazing dedicated to issues of racial justice, told teleSUR, “The working conditions have always been pretty rough for undocumented workers.
“You're sort of guaranteed this group of people that technically have rights, as workers they have rights. Your immigration status as a civil status doesn't affect your ability to garner those rights. But in effect, it does.”
Undocumented immigrants cannot access Medicare or social security; they can not apply for higher education, a driver's license or anything else that requires official documentation; and they live in constant fear of deportation or the deportation of close friends or family members.
According to a report by Race Forward, a U.S.-based nongovermental organization focused on racial issues, in the first six months of 2011 the government deported 46,000 mothers and fathers whose children were born in the U.S., breaking up thousands of families. That same year, an estimated 5,100 children were living in foster care because their parents had been detained or deported.
Since 2004, the U.S. government has prioritized and expanded the detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants, increasing the feeling of insecurity among those living with precarious status in the country.
During the George W. Bush administration (2001-2009), local and state police powers were boosted, giving them the authority —as well as encouragment — to detain undocumented immigrants. Even if they had not committed a crime, local agencies and federal powers blurred as police turned immigrants over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE, the federal authorities responsible for deportations).
This partnership between local and national law enforcers essentially created a manhunt for immigrants and treated them as criminals without giving them the right to trial. Some states and cities have since opted out of this controversial agreement with ICE, although most of the country still abides by it.
“The amount of people that are in detention every single day, the fact that congress has a mandate to fill 32,000 beds every night with undocumented immigrants. This is an anomaly in the U.S.,” said Bogado.
“You're talking about people who are not going through criminal proceedings, they're going through civil proceedings for their immigration status, this is a civil matter.”
In the past two national elections, Obama promised comprehensive immigration reform in both of his campaigns, earning him a major portion of the Hispanic vote. However, two years into his second term, not only has he failed to pass any comprehensive reform, but deportations have hit an all time high since he took office in 2009.
According to the latest figures from the Department of Homeland Security, 438,421 people were deported in 2013 – 20,000 more than the year before, bringing Obama's total to well over 2 million deportations.
One of the positive changes to immigration laws has been the addition of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which delays the deportation of undocumented minors and young adults for two-year intervals. Obama used his executive authority to launch the DACA program in 2012, after failing to garner enough support from Republicans to pass the DREAM Act, which aimed to offer full legal status to undocumented youth.
When DACA was announced, 89 percent of Hispanics in the U.S. said they approved it, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, as it gave some hope that further reform might take place. Some 600,000 young adults have since been accepted under DACA, and their deportations delayed.
However, by 2014 the number of undocumented child immigrants in the country hit a peak, when a surge of unaccompanied minors — mainly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — tried to enter the United States. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics, 72,000 unaccompanied children will cross into the United States by the end of 2014.
The United Nations states that the minors should be treated as refugees and not be deported, as most of them are fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries.
In 2012, Honduras was rated the most violent country in the world with 90 murders for every 100,000 people. In the same year, El Salvador was rated the fourth most violent country with 70 murders per 100,000 people, and Guatemala was fifth with 39 murders for every 100,000 people.
In many cases, young people end up being the main victims of violence. In El Salvador, for example, 38 percent of those murdered are between the ages of 15 and 24.
Obama called the situation at the border a “humanitarian crisis,” since the Border Patrol has not been equipped with the resources to handle the surge in migrants and traffickers were taking advantage of the lack of security. However, Obama responded to the crisis by fast-tracking people, particularly minors, through deportation courts to return them to their countries of origin faster.
In June 2014, Obama once again announced plans to use his executive authority to implement immigration laws, after once again being blocked by Republicans from passing comprehensive reforms.
The proposed legislation — Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, or S.744 — calls for stronger enforcement of immigration laws and increased border security measures.
This would include sending more troops to the border and extending the wall that divides the U.S. and Mexico; something Republicans have been lobbying for. However, the legislation will also make it easier for some undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status, something Republicans oppose.
Although many immigration activists are pressuring Obama to move forward on this point, according to Bogado, who has worked closely with undocumented immigrants in the U.S. for years, “they don't really care about citizenship.”
“I think what a lot of people are looking for is a way to be able to cross back and forth on the border and be able to participate without the fear of removal,” Bogado said. “We're talking about people who really just want to be able to go home for a little while and come back and be the labor that this country seems to want.”
Following the mid-term elections in November 2014, Obama finally announced his latest executive order for immigration reform. Many immigration groups criticized him for waiting until after the elections, accusing him of stalling on the controversial bill to save the Democrats running for re-election in the Senate from having to defend it. However, even though Democrats lost control of the Senate in the November vote, Obama followed through on his plans to use his executive authority on immigration.
His plan will provide new protections for undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. for the last five years whose children have been born there. These people can now apply to stay in the country without fear of deportation, but only temporarily. This is expected to save some five million people from immediate deportation.
Many activists and immigrant rights advocates say the new law is not comprehensive enough. It does not apply to recent arrivals, such as the wave of children fleeing violence in Central America trying to cross the border this past year, nor does it grant anyone the right to stay in the U.S. permanently.
However, Republicans have strongly criticized the president for using an executive order thus ignoring the will of Congress, especially after they gained control of the Senate in the midterm elections and strengthened their majority in the House of Representatives.
Speaker of the House, Republican John Boehner, has said that "all options are on the table" to stop Obama's immigration plan. By the second week of January 2015, several Republican-controlled states filed a lawsuit against the President saying his plan violates constitutional limits on presidential powers. Republicans in the House of Representatives also approved a bill to cut off funding for Obama's new immigration plan. The bill is now headed to the Republican controlled Senate to see a second vote.
Obama has vowed to veto the bill if “ideological provisions” were attached to it, as Republicans and Democrats continue to play beltway politics with the issue of immigration.