Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Migration & Refugees, North America

MIGRATION: Letting Go of the American Dream

Valeria Fernández

PHOENIX, Arizona, Dec 23 2009 (IPS) - It is only a matter of days before Marcela Vázquez, an undocumented immigrant, leaves the southwestern U.S. state of Arizona for good. And before she does, she’s putting as much as she can up for sale – including her three children’s beds.

After a decade of living in the U.S. she will have to take what fits in the car.

“I’m going to take the risk of going back, because I can’t make it here with my three children,” said Vázquez, 33. All her kids are U.S. citizens.

Her husband, an undocumented worker, was detained in a traffic stop by the local police and deported just days later. She spent her 1,500 dollars in savings on paying an attorney that couldn’t help him.

As the end of the year nears, many immigrant families like Vázquez’s are making the decision to return to their homeland, driven away by Arizona’s tougher policies against undocumented immigrants.

The state continues to be the battleground for a divisive immigration reform debate across the United States. Over the last three years, a string of tough immigration laws coupled with increased police enforcement have pushed immigrant populations into the shadows. Many have lost hope on the chance of immigration reform.

A report by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) estimated that the undocumented population in Arizona has decreased from half a million people to 300,000 based on U.S census data.

Mexican consular authorities in Phoenix processed 1,048 school transferring documents this year for the children of families who are returning to Mexico. The previous year it was 1,534, up from 330 on 2007.

Socorro Cordova, a spokesperson for the Phoenix Mexican Consulate, said that the number of people returning seems to have stabilised over the past two years. But many migrants are choosing to move within the United States to areas like New Mexico and Texas, where policies towards migrants are seen as more relaxed.

On Nov. 24, a new law took effect requiring all Arizona state employees to report on undocumented migrants applying for public benefits.

The chilling effect was immediate on immigrant communities that fear requesting basic health services like pre-natal care and immunisations.

Conservative politicians in the state, which currently faces a two-billion-dollar budget deficit, argue these measures are needed to reduce costs of healthcare, education and incarceration of undocumented migrants.

“What they’re trying to do is cause as much misery as possible so people will self-deport,” said Alfredo Gutiérrez, a former Arizona senator and editor of La Frontera Times.

For 2010, Republican legislators have vowed to push for new bills that would criminalise the undocumented by allowing any police department to arrest someone because of their immigration status.

“It’s tough here, but in Mexico it’s much worse,” said Maria Montoya, an undocumented mother of five children whose husband was deported. “The last thing you lose is faith. I hope [Pres. Barack] Obama does something for us.”

The immigration debate is expected to rekindle next year and state enforcement efforts might come to a halt if Congress approves a bill granting the legalisation of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants that live in the U.S.

On Dec. 14, Congressional Rep. Luis Gutiérrez submitted the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2009 (CIR ASAP).

The bill includes border enforcement provisions, the strengthening of employer sanctions and the legalisation of the undocumented. They would be allowed to attain legal status if they prove that they have been working, pay a 500 dollars fine, learn English and have no criminal record.

It is expected that next year, New York Senator Chuck Schumer will introduce a bill that reflects the Obama administration’s approach to reform.

Despite the current administration’s promise to focus on migrants with criminal records, some observers point out that immigration enforcement will continue to get stiffer towards migrants who are rooted in the U.S.

A record number of 215,000 people detained in the country’s interior – not on the borders – have been deported during the Obama administration. And the numbers are expected to grow.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) projects it will deport some 450,000 migrants a year.

Immigration prosecutions are also up by nearly 16 percent, and they represent half of most criminal cases handled by the federal government, according to an analysis of Department of Justice data conducted by the Syracuse University.

The report indicates that about 22,000 of these prosecutions occurred in Arizona. They pertained mostly to migrants who were detained trying to cross the border illegally and were tried in mass hearings.

Chris Simcox, a former leader of the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, a border watch group, and current candidate to the U.S. Senate in Arizona doesn’t believe the government is doing enough. He said the border continues to be unsecured and it would be a tough sell to convince the U.S. people to support any form of legalisation when unemployment is running high.

Many migrants think the stricter policies are a positive sign.

“I think they are making it tougher because we are coming close to getting amnesty, just like in the Reagan years,” said José Rivero, 38, an undocumented migrant. He was referring to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 signed by Republican President Ronald Reagan granting amnesty to over three million undocumented immigrants.

“We waited this long, we can wait a bit more,” he said.

Some like Vázquez feel they no longer can wait around. Before she reaches the border, she needs to pass one more hurdle. Border Patrol agents may detain her Mexico-bound vehicle to ask about her immigration status, as part of a recent practice to detect migrants who have been living illegally in the U.S.

If that’s the case, her three children might be left stranded on the U.S. side of the border.

“We’ve hoped none of this would happen to us,” said Vázquez, who will be returning to Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s poorest states. “My children tell me they don’t want to go to a place they’ve never known.”

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