Tensions rachet up in US immigration battle

Debate on immigrants rages on with 11 million undocumented people living under the threat of deportation.

President Obama has issued an order allowing 3.2 million parents of US citizens to avoid deportation [Reuters]
President Obama has issued an order allowing 3.2 million parents of US citizens to avoid deportation [Reuters]

New York City – Like many children of undocumented immigrants, Lupe Martinez has lived a precarious life.

Lupe’s parents migrated to the United States by way of Oaxaca, Mexico, living without the legal status that their daughter attained at birth having been born in New York. In 2002, following a car accident on the way to work, Lupe’s father was detained for driving without a license or insurance, setting in motion a string of events that led to his deportation.

“I was young, and it was hard to understand,” said Lupe, a 17-year-old high school student who lives in a small one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn with her mother. “Now it just makes me angry.”

Lupe’s mother, while able to avoid deportation, struggled to provide for her daughter working as a housekeeper without health insurance, a driver’s license or a work permit. 

“I know my life was different,” Lupe, recalling her mothers constant work and absence from teacher conferences, field trips and school events, told Al Jazeera. “The most difficult thing was knowing it could collapse at any time.”

More than 11 million undocumented people in the US live under the looming threat of deportation, many of them in mixed status families like Lupe’s. The immigration policy of enforcement and prevention through deterrence, which has dominated since the 1990s, has so far failed to halt new immigration or provide a pathway to citizenship for those already here.

“The enforcement regime has been a failure,” said Joanna Dreby, a professor at the University of Albany who studies the impact of deportation and criminalisation of immigrant families like Lupe’s.

“These are always going to be unauthorised people in this country, not convicts but people wanting a better life. The problem is criminalising these individuals,” she told Al Jazeera.

These are always going to be unauthorised people in this country, not convicts but people wanting a better life. The problem is criminalising these individuals.

- Joanna Dreby, University of Albany

Escalating fear

In an attempt to address the growing problem, last month President Obama issued an executive order expanding programmes allowing 3.2 million parents of US citizens and another 1.5 unauthorised young immigrants to avoid deportation, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

“Every day we delay, our country and our economy suffer,” Obama said in a presidential address in November. “Millions of families go on living in the shadows, without a chance to pay their taxes or do what’s necessary to get on the right side of the law.”

“The [executive order] is an opportunity to keep families together,” Thanu Yakupityage, from the New York Immigration Coalition, told Al Jazeera. “Congress had adequate chances to pass the bill and failed. This will provide much needed relief,” she said.

Others disagree, arguing that the executive order will only promote illegal immigration, leading to negative impacts on the culture, economy and security of the US.

“This order, a dramatic extension of illegal amnesty, sends the message that anyone can come into our country,” said Jon Feere, a legal analyst for the conservative Centre for Immigration Studies, a research organisation that pushes for greater enforcement and deterrence in immigration policy. “Obama’s order represents a lack of will to enforce our immigration laws and defend our sovereignty,” he told Al Jazeera.

“This is a precedent set by a tyrannical president,” said Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minutemen Project, a anti-illegal immigration group whose name derives from the militia groups that fought in the American Revolution.

“We want to maintain the character and integrity or our country … no jihadists, no violent peoples, no mob rule coming from the tens of millions of US aliens occupying US territory,” Gilchrist told Al Jazeera.

Rhetoric of defence 

The rhetoric of defence against cultural, economic and political threats, part of the US discourse on immigration, has found growing support since 2001, as immigration policy has been increasingly viewed through the lens of national security.

According to a study by the Migration Policy Institute: “Many of the post-9/11 initiatives, though motivated and supported by a desire to address national security concerns, have increasingly become highly effective tools to track, apprehend, and remove run-of-the-mill unauthorised immigrants who pose no security threat.”

The threat of immigration is not just economic, it's a threat to our characters as a unified nation with a common bond of language and culture.

- Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minutemen Project

Since 2001, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has become the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country, with 45,000 officers and a $12bn annual budget, according to a 2012 report by the US Government Accountability Office.

Throughout his presidency Obama has strongly supported the prevention through deterrence model of immigration policy, deporting 419,384 individuals in 2012, the most in US history, while continuing the collaboration between state and federal agencies, something that has created widespread human rights abuses according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

“The state and local collaboration has been a huge mistake,” said Chris Rickerd, policy council for the ACLU. “Since 9/11 there has been widespread abuse from CBP officers and we are seeing racial profiling on a grand scale.”

This profiling has, according to the ACLU, been reflected in a number of anti-immigrant laws passed in Arizona, Alabama, Utah, South Carolina, and Georgia over the past few years. Arizona’s measure, SB 1070 requires, among other things, for police officers to determine the immigration status of suspects they’ve stopped, detained or arrested if a “reasonable suspicion” exists that the person is in the country illegally.

“It’s profiling,” said Mark Trujillo, a resident of Phoenix, Arizona. “Driving while Hispanic is now a crime,” he told Al Jazeera.

Gilchrist, sees these kinds of measure’s as necessary to protect the country, which he sees as increasingly partitioning into “pseudo national enclaves”.

“The threat of immigration is not just economic,” said Gilchrist, “it’s a threat to our characters as a unified nation with a common bond of language and culture”.

Echoing Gilchrist’s sentiment, John Tirman from MIT’s Centre for International Studies, argues that: “The opposition [to immigration] is cultural in nature. It’s not so much about security or economy, or job stealing, or even about politics.”

Tirman, who is the former director of SSRC’s Global Security and Cooperation Programme, told Al Jazeera: “And what is absent from the popular debate over reform is any acknowledgement of the forces driving immigration in the first place.”

Immigration driving factors

For Jorge Sanchez, a Chihuahua City native, immigration to the US was not a matter of want but of necessity and circumstance. Throughout the 1980s Sanchez joined the thousands of Mexican migrants that would enter the US through the porous southwestern border to work on US farms. In the 1990s, as public outcry over illegal immigration facilitated increased border security, thousands of migrants who would normally have gone home stayed in the US illegally.

“I was happy moving back and forth,” said Sanchez, noting the irony that increased border security actually grew the illegal population in the US. “But once the border closed that was my only option.”

At the same time, violence and instability stemming from the war on drugs and neoliberal polices such as NAFTA combined to increase immigration into the US, particularly from Mexico, according to Princeton University Professor Douglas Massey and the Drug Policy Alliance.

“This is the great unspoken dimension of the immigration conversation,” said Tirman. “Life has become so unstable in Latin America as a direct consequence of the US sponsored drug war and free trade agreements.”

Tirman continued: “We just don’t want acknowledge that the things that we have done and continue to do are creating the conditions that make people feel like they have to migrate,” he concluded.

Sanchez, who has raised five children in his New Mexico home, said: “Immigration won’t change, but how this country treats its immigrants should! No amount of fence will stop people from seeking a better life.”

Follow Samuel Gilbert on Twitter: @samuelgilbert1

Under Obama’s order 1.5 unauthorised young immigrants could avoid deportation [AP]
Source : Al Jazeera

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