Mariela Obregon Chavarria hoped to return to her native country of Nicaragua one day, but arriving in handcuffs and escorted by security officers wasn’t what she had in mind. After seven years living and working in the United States, Mariela was arrested and held in four different detention centers around the country for two months. When she was deported, her three-year-old son, a U.S. citizen, remained behind.

Unfortunately, this situation isn’t unique.

The Obama administration deports approximately 33,400 immigrants per month. More than half of them have no criminal convictions or only very minor ones, such as traffic violations. Many of these deportations stem from programs like Secure Communities, which facilitates information transfers between local police departments and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Secure Communities endangers a broad section of society by creating disincentives for immigrants to report crimes or call the police.

The stakes are high. Within the first six months of 2011, the federal government removed more than 6,000 parents of U.S. citizen children, leaving over 5,100 children in state care.

Although the Obama administration claimed it would focus on deporting serious criminals, the program continues to expand and the number of deportees continues to rise. Nearly 300,000 people have been deported under Secure Communities alone. About 1,600 jurisdictions in 44 states and territories were participating in the program as of September. By 2013, ICE plans to have Secure Communities in operation from coast to coast.

And what can we expect if one of the Republican presidential candidates takes office a little over a year from now?

Newt Gingrich supports laws that encourage racial profiling. Both Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann have called for deporting all undocumented people residing in the nation, regardless of whether they came as children or would be leaving children behind in foster care. Ron Paul wants to bring the troops back from Afghanistan and place them along the U.S.-Mexico border. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney is celebrating his opposition to granting in-state college tuition to undocumented teens raised in Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, federal authorities have mentioned the possibility of using remote-controlled customs kiosks at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Clearly, politicians and officials are starting to think outside the box when it comes to immigration. The problem is, we need outside-the-box solutions that both protect human rights and make economic sense. Deportation disrupts the fabric of local economies. Furthermore, many U.S. policies leave people south of the border with few options but to migrate.

So-called “free-trade” agreements like the pacts recently signed between the United States and Colombia, Panama, and South Korea, and those previously established with Mexico and Central American countries, place developing countries at an unfair disadvantage. For example, in Mexico, 1.3 million farm jobs were lost by farmers unable to compete with U.S.-subsidized agricultural exports. These deals encourage the creation of unstable, low-paying factory jobs.

In Nicaragua, for example, workers in export-oriented factories make $160 a month, although the cost of living is estimated to be $430 a month.

Reforming trade agreements like DR-CAFTA and NAFTA would allow more people to work in their home countries and not have to migrate to the United States to support their families. However, effective solutions must secure the rights of immigrants currently living and working in the United States as well as the roots of migration.

Immigration policy reform must provide a pathway to citizenship for immigrants currently living and working in the United States. This would allow undocumented immigrants to stop living in fear of being deported and having their families torn apart. The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2011, which incorporates parts of the DREAM Act that almost passed in 2010, is a good start.

As the U.S. election heats up, immigration issues can’t be considered within a policy vacuum. Addressing the root causes of migration and focusing on providing legal options for undocumented immigrants will allow millions of people like Mariela both to support their families and lead honest, dignified lives.

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Christine Gofreddo

Christine Goffredo leads Witness for Peace delegations to Nicaragua for students and professionals interested in interested in the impact of "free trade" on the Central American nation, as well as the roots of migration.
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