New York - In his campaign, President Barack Obama promised to make comprehensive immigration reform a top priority – a pledge mainly directed at Latino voters.
But in his nearly three years in office, his attention has been on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, healthcare reform and the financial crisis, disappointing Latino voters and jeopardising an important source of support for his bid for re-election in 2012.
But the Obama administration has not merely left aside the question of reform.
One of the key demands of Latino rights activists is an end to a controversial Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) programme known as Secure Communities.
Although the aim of the programme is to deport undocumented immigrants who have criminal records, it has led to massive sweeps of immigrants without criminal records.
The Secure Communities web site says the programme "uses an already-existing federal information- sharing partnership between ICE and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) that helps to identify criminal aliens without imposing new or additional requirements on state and local law enforcement… Under Secure Communities, the FBI automatically sends the fingerprints to ICE to check against its immigration databases.
"If these checks reveal that an individual is unlawfully present in the United States or otherwise removable due to a criminal conviction, ICE takes enforcement action – prioritising the removal of individuals who present the most significant threats to public safety as determined by the severity of their crime, their criminal history, and other factors – as well as those who have repeatedly violated immigration laws," the web site adds.
But "the programme has been a total failure," Roberto Lovato, cofounder of Presente.org, an online Latino advocacy organisation, told IPS. The result, he said, is that "the immigrant community avoids going to the police to report crimes that are being committed or that they have witnessed."
Secure Communities, which is to be extended nationwide by 2013, has also been rejected by authorities in California, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York. Nevertheless, it has been activated by the federal government in some districts in those states.
Besides the deportations, activists are concerned about reported violations of the human rights of the detained immigrants.
"Lost in Detention", a Frontline documentary aired on the PBS public broadcasting station on Oct. 18, examines the situation in the country's network of detention facilities for immigrants.
According to the programme, the country's immigration laws – and Secure Communities in particular – have broken up families. The documentary also shows immigrants being held in subhuman conditions and reports sexual and psychological abuse of detainees, as well as racism.
Deportation – in numbers
According to the Department of Homeland Security, there are some 11 million unauthorised immigrants living in the United States.
Of that total, 6.6 million, or 62 percent, are from Mexico. The next leading source countries are in Central America: El Salvador (620,000), Guatemala (520,000) and Honduras (330,000); and South America: Ecuador (110,000) and Brazil (100,000).
One million immigrants have been deported since Obama took office in January 2009.
Of the nearly 400,000 people deported in fiscal year 2011 – a record high – 55 percent had felony or misdemeanour convictions, according to ICE Director John Morton.
The various programmes – Secure Communities, Criminal Alien and 287(g) – that give state and local authorities the power to enforce federal immigration laws, and the lack of reforms to regularise the status of long time immigrants, have generated confusion in the scope and aims of the country's immigration laws.
In an unprecedented encroachment on a policy area constitutionally reserved for the federal government, several states have passed their own immigration laws, such as Arizona's SB 1070, enacted in April 2010 and partially blocked by the federal courts, and Alabama's HB 56.
The Alabama law, passed by the state legislature in June 2011, is described as one of the country's harshest anti-immigrant bills. It requires that police demand identity documents of anyone who they have "reasonable suspicion" to believe is in the country unlawfully, and requires public schools to determine the immigration status of primary and secondary school students, while authorising school officials to report children or parents who may be in the country illegally.
It also establishes penalties, even jail time, for people who hire, rent to or even assist undocumented immigrants, by giving a ride to a neighbour, for instance.
The NY Immigration Coalition's director of immigration advocacy, Jacqueline Esposito, said Secure Communities and similar programmes "have created an environment where anti-immigrant laws like those in Arizona and Alabama have flourished at the local level."
Lucía Gómez, executive director of La Fuente, an umbrella community organisation for civic participation projects in New York, says these laws confuse civil immigration violations with criminal offences. "An immigration infraction does not mean someone is a criminal, like someone who has killed a person," she told IPS.
In many cases, immigrants are immediately deported, without being allowed to contact their families or talk to a lawyer, after they are transferred to detention centres far from their homes, she added.
The view from Washington
The Obama administration announced in August that it was suspending deportations while it reviewed 300,000 pending cases. Under the new policy, immigration authorities will cancel the deportations of long time residents who do not pose a risk to society and do not have a criminal record.
But Esposito said "the new policy has not yet been implemented, which raises serious concerns."
Felicia Escobar, White House senior policy adviser on immigration, recently told local Latino leaders gathered at Baruch College in New York that the president wants immigration reform, but is obligated to enforce current laws until an agreement is reached.
"We all think that the laws should be changed and the system is broken," said Escobar.
But Obama has repeatedly stated that he will not act on his own to implement a reform bill that has failed to gain congressional approval.
Esposito said Congress is divided by "partisan politics" and has failed to adequately address the question of immigration.
Lovato believes the recent suspension of deportations was merely an attempt to win Latino votes, "a way to channel the hopes, wishes and passion of Latino voters towards Obama. But now they need to win the votes of more conservative independent whites," he said.
Gómez said the president is trying a two-pronged approach to hang on to the support of the two-thirds of Latinos who voted for him in 2008.
"The problem is the president's negotiating strategy: he's trying to show that he can be tough, but that he also respects the community. It has been a dangerous dance because the Republican Party has not yielded an inch, and we have been victims of that strategy," she said.