Sort by

The Real Hardship Underlying Obama's Immigration Executive Order

Pamela Cataldo

This week, and under the pressure of immigration advocates from around the country, President Obama announced his plans for an executive order aimed to alleviate the problems of our broken immigration system. Obama’s immigration plan will be announced today and it will hopefully address the pleas of thousands of families that live separated because of deportation.

President Obama is not the first to enact executive orders regarding immigration. Both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush signed orders during their terms that granted legal status to undocumented immigrants.

Some of those who benefited from these executive orders have become productive, civically engaged citizens. One of them is Carlos, who I met in 2010 at a picket line of striking warehouse workers. Carlos had come to the United States in the eighties. He shared with me the impressive story of crossing the border over the Rio Grande, on a makeshift bridge in the middle of the night. Luckily, everyone is his group lived to tell the story but as he recalled to me, “if anyone fell, there was nothing we could do to help.” Carlos was always mindful to remember the special circumstances that allowed him to become a citizen. He told me that if it wasn’t for those immigration laws, he would not be a citizen today.

Although Obama’s plan has not been announced yet, many speculate that it will be an expansion of the deferred action program that benefited the popular “Dreamers” to include their parents and increase the number of visas available to high-tech workers. The plan could benefit between 4 and 5 million undocumented immigrants.

The most common offense that can deem an immigrant ineligible to obtain legal status is crossing the border illegally. This type of violation is a deportable offense that bans the person of applying for a visa to re-entry for 10 years unless they apply for a hardship waiver.

Consider the story of Alfredo, husband and father to three U.S. citizens. Alfredo is a construction worker that in 1996 moved to Colorado from Mexico after his family was the target of a violent crime by a drug cartel. All of his employment and family ties are in the United States yet he has been separated from his family due to his deportation. He was arrested for driving without a license and his case was quickly turned over to immigration officials for not having legal status. After the first time he was deported, his family had no income and he was not able to get a job in Mexico. Unable to support his family, he made the decision to re-enter the United States but was picked up by immigration officials and deported once again. His family in Colorado is hopeful that President Obama’s executive order will halt the deportations of people like Alfredo—hard-working, stuck in a system that offers them no path to legal status and living apart from their families.  

My job as field investigator at Demos has allowed me to speak to many people affected by deportation and family separation.

While in Birmingham, AL in 2012, I met Oscar, a waiter in a Mexican restaurant. Oscar was actively fighting his possible deportation. He had a US citizen wife and two children but the family could not petition for him because he had entered the US illegally. Oscar worked three jobs to help support his family. His commute was long because he did not have a driver’s license or a car. His biggest complaint was that he did not get to see his children enough. In order to fight his deportation, he had to travel to the nearest immigration court in Atlanta, GA. His employers had been somewhat understanding by giving him unpaid time-off; but he felt that it made him choose between his legal troubles or whether his bills got paid.

Thousands of families in the United States are separated due to immigration laws that have affected hard-working immigrants who are just trying to support their families. The separation causes extreme emotional and financial hardships to those who are left behind. Consider the case of actress Diane Guerrero from the popular show “Orange is the New Black;” a US citizen whose parents were deported when she was only 14 years old. As she recalled recently, one day after school, she came back to an empty house where an unfinished meal was on the stove. Her family had been arrested and no one took notice of her. She was completely left behind. 

Thousands of families petition for an immediate relative who entered the country illegally every year.

A recent change in immigration laws has lifted the mandatory penalty of having to leave the country in order to apply for a waiver; however, before this change to the law, many husbands and wives had to make the choice of living apart in order for the US citizens to remain in their home country. David, a Mexican immigrant, voluntarily returned to Mexico in 2005 to wait for his waiver interview. His wife speaks of the tremendous financial hardship she experienced after David left. She writes: “That year and half was an arduous struggle! The cost of paying for daycare was more than my mortgage. I worked hard to save money but we had to live on 30 dollars a month for gas and food without the extra income that my husband was bringing in.”  

We should also consider the emotional hardship that family separation causes on spouses and their children. Mario Ramirez, a Mexican national was handcuffed and arrested by ICE in his home and in front of his two year old daughter who was “screaming and crying for her daddy.” The child’s mother writes that her daughter “wakes up every night having a nightmare screaming I want my daddy.”

Losing a spouse’s income severely limits the economic opportunities of these families, often forcing the US citizen parent into working non-stop, seeking governmental assistance or even complete financial ruin. The abysmal economic situation of the countries where the undocumented immigrants return, often exacerbates the financial pressure of the working spouse. These families face a problem that our current immigration system does not address. Leaving the system broken will continue to separate the hard-working families of the immigrants whose only crime was the pursuit of the American dream and a better life.

Obama’s immigration executive order will be controversial and many will portray immigrants in a bad light. Let’s not forget that these are families that experience very real and very extreme hardships due to the deportation of their loved ones. To read more personal stories on immigration please visit Our Stories Our Power.

Adelante, y si se puede!