Tucson, Arizona– Those who were hoping that Mexico would be part of the foreign policy debate between President Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney were disappointed.
"We kept waiting for them to say something about Latin America – nothing," said Adrian Arroyo, 26, a research assistant working on his PhD in higher education. "They didn’t even mention Mexico."
Arroyo said the absence of Mexico from the debate indicated that US policy saw immigration as a domestic issue, somehow separate from what was going on across the border in Mexico.
That border, and the traffic that moves through it, has been a contentious issue in the US for years, with things inevitably coming to a head during an election year.
According to 2010 US Census data, roughly 16 per cent of the US population, just over 50 million - is of Hispanic and Latino origin, with 43 per cent eligible to vote.
While undocumented immigrants cannot vote, immigration issues targeting them could be the determining factor in swing states such as Florida, Colorado and Nevada. Although it’s not considered a "battleground" for the candidates, Arizona is emblematic of the fight for immigration reform, which could determine the fate of an estimated 11 million undocumented migrants in the US.
The two candidates have radically different plans, with Obama promising tough-to-deliver immigration reform within a year and Romney pushing for self-deportation, asking undocumented migrants to voluntarily return to their countries of origin and to apply to re-enter legally.
Policy vs reality
The president supports the passage of the DREAM Act, which would give undocumented children a path to citizenship, whereas Romney has said that he would veto the act.
The DREAM Act would make a huge impact in Arizona, where a controversial law – SB1070 – the toughest immigration rules in the country, was signed in 2010, giving state police the right to detain anyone they suspected of being in the country illegally.
It was almost immediately challenged as being discriminatory, and in June, the US Supreme court struck down most of the law except for the key "show me your papers" provision, which it upheld.
A contentious issue in a Red State that seems to be a test market for conservative laws, SB 1070 was drafted by Kris Kobach, who is at least an "informal" immigration advisor to Romney.
Several states, including Utah, South Carolina and Alabama, have passed laws modeled on Arizona’s law.
"The problem with SB 1070 is that it never defines 'reasonable suspicion'," said Kathryn Rodriguez, programme director at Coalicion de Derechos Humanos, an immigrants rights group.
Rodriguez said that since SB 1070, many of the migrant workers - who she says are essentially stuck in the US because there is no reasonable programme to allow them to go back and forth – have scaled back on community participation.
"They don't have parties, they don't go to dances or even church ... One man told he felt really bad because he didn't let his children play outside anymore," said Rodriguez. "People are scared."
She said that self-deportation – or leaving and trying to re-enter legally - is not really an option because as it stands, the visa system is so flooded that in some cases, there can be a wait of up to 20 years to enter the country legally.
Rodriguez said that if she were a single-issue voter, she would have a hard time voting for Obama based on his immigration policy.
"Look at his record – he’s deported more people than any other administration, over a million," said Rodriguez. "Romney’s language is more problematic, so Obama would be the lesser of the two evils, because at least he's talking about the DREAM Act."
The border as a battlefield
As much as undocumented immigrants feel under siege, there are American citizens who feel very much that the country is being flooded with foreigners, due mostly to the lack of border security and enforcement.
"The whole system sucks," said Al Garza, 66, a former volunteer with the Minutemen Project, a civilian group often described as a militia. The group no longer officially patrols the US borders in Arizona.
"This isn't immigration – they keep calling it immigration, but it's not. It's an outright invasion," said Garza, a former criminal investigator of Mexican descent.
Rodriguez scoffs at the idea that what activists want is an open border.
"No one's talking about open borders, where people just come and go. The reality is immigration is directly linked to economics, where people come, work, and return home. There's an ebb and flow," said Rodriguez.
"What we've done by militarising the border is make it deadly and dangerous to cross the border, so people are coming and staying here," she said, pointing to the increasing death rate at the border.
Lynn Marcus, director of the immigration law clinic at the University of Arizona’s school of law said that as things stand, there is not a viable path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
"There’s a lot of myths about immigration law, and a sense that after a certain time period, a person would have a certain right a legal status, but that's not the case," said Marcus, who specialises in helping low-income immigrants facing deportation.
"That’s part what's broken about the immigration system." Virtually none of the conditions considered anchors for legal status – marrying a citizen or having a child in the US, for example – actually guarantee citizenship.
Not all of undocumented immigrants in the US are from Mexico, but in a state like Arizona, most are. Marcus estimates that roughly 80 per cent of her clients at the centre are Mexican, and she can’t see Romney’s self-deportation plan working.
"Lead by the Republicans, Congress tried that already, in 1996," said Marcus, adding that there was a buffer period before the law went into effect, during which time it was anticipated that "hordes of people" would leave of their own accord.
"But surprise, surprise, millions of people did not take up and abandon their jobs and their schools and families to go get into some actual or hoped for line," she said.
'Hell no' to self-deportation
Adelina Lopez, 26, moved to the US from Hermosillo, in Sonora, Mexico, when she was five years old.
It was not until she was 14 and a freshman in high school that Lopez learned that she was an undocumented immigrant.
"[I found out] when everyone was going on trips, like, group trips, and I thought I’d like to go, maybe volunteer in Africa," said Lopez. When her mother told her that travelling would be out of the questions as the family is "without papers", Lopez said everything she'd planned for her life vapourised.
At that moment, she told Al Jazeera, "The dream of becoming something became impossible."
While she knew that some of her other classmates were undocumented, it never occurred to her that she was in the same boat. "I was raised in this country, and I always thought I had the same privileges," said Lopez, who is in the process of applying for "deferred action" status, which, if granted, would allow her to work for two years. The status could be renewable, assuming the government – potentially with Romney as president – opts to continue the policy.
Just by virtue of applying and "outing" herself and her family as undocumented, Lopez is risking deportation, but it's a risk she feels is worth taking.
Since the signing of SB 1070, like many undocumented immigrants, Lopez was worried – many have either left for neighbouring states, returned to Mexico or live lives of paranoia, avoiding any unnecessary outings.
"But I started thinking – what am I doing here, with my life? All I can do is clean houses and babysit and I couldn't believe I could do what I wanted with my life," said Lopez. She’s attending community college, studying social work with AN emphasis on youth issues.
"I just got tired of it," she said of the constant worrying.
If she is denied deferred action, Lopez said she’ll pursue any other possible avenue that would allow her to stay in the country, study and work. And if Romney becomes president, would she voluntarily deport herself and try to re-enter?
"Hell no. Why would I want to self-deport? If I go back to Mexico, I’ll just stay there. It’ll be almost impossible to come back," said Lopez, shaking her head, certain that that is precisely the idea behind Romney’s plan – to get people to leave and dissuade them from ever coming back.
"I want to stay here and work, and help the next group of minorities that are targeted – whoever they are."
Follow D Parvaz on Twitter: @Dparvaz