SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA
— President Barack Obama and leaders in the Senate hope to reform the U.S. immigration system to resolve the problem of more than 11 million people who are living in the United States illegally. The issue hits close to home in San Diego, California, near the border with Mexico, where legal and undocumented residents live and work together.
One such resident, Rosa Maria Mendoza, is self-deporting. She has lived in the United States for 12 years but is returning to Mexico. She is leaving behind a 15-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter, who want to stay in California with their grandmother. Mendoza earns barely enough in California to support her family, but is a trained paralegal worker in Mexico.
Speaking in Spanish, Mendoza said her situation is complicated and she doesn't know how they [her children] will manage. But they love his country, she said, and she respects their wishes.
San Diego is a beautiful seaside city, a short drive from the U.S.-Mexico border, with its massive fence and extensive security. The security is needed, says former Republican congressman Duncan Hunter.
“What it is, is a border security program that says several things. Number one, if you want to come into America, knock on the front door," Hunter said.
Millions have not done that. Economic refugees from Latin America often lack the job skills to get a legal visa. But many came illegally as children with their parents.
At the University of San Diego, law student Rosibel Mancillas Lopez meets with a friend, Wendy Romero. Wendy is one of 1.7 million young people covered by the program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals
, which the Obama administration announced last June. She is now safe from deportation. So is San Diego State University nursing student Maria Estrada.
“In many ways, it changed the psyche and the thinking of a lot of undocumented youth, and gave us a lot of hope that we hadn't had for a long time,” Estrada said.
The workers who pick the produce on California farms are thought to be mostly undocumented and using false papers, said Eric Larson of the San Diego Farm Bureau.
“Even though they may not be here legally documented, we'd like to see as many of them stay as possible," Larson said. "They're very skilled, they’re trained."
Farmers also hope to see an effective program put in place to bring extra workers to the country at harvest time. Each year, hundreds of migrants die crossing the border through the desert. Laura and John Hunter, the brother of the former congressman, head a group called Water Station
that leaves water in the desert for the migrants. Laura, who was born in Mexico, said the undocumented need to come out of the shadows.
“To be able to have the opportunities to become citizens, to be able to provide for their families.”
Members of a Unitarian church near a detention center in Irvine, California pay weekly visits to those awaiting deportation. Visitor Jan Meslin said the immigration system separates families.
“And especially, a lot of the detainees here tell us about their children, who they miss so much."
The immigration system is overwhelmed, said Estela De Los Rios of the Center for Social Advocacy. Legal remedies for those fighting deportation can take several years, and those waiting to immigrate legally can wait even longer.
“There's people that I've known that have applied 15 years ago, and their name is just coming up," she said.
Hunter says politicians must find a solution.
“We need the labor. The guys in Mexico and other places do need the work, and so there should be some way to legally make both sides happy.”
Others say the rights of those waiting in line to immigrate legally should also be respected, and that the border needs to be secure.
But Congress is divided, and leaders in both parties say that finding a solution will not be easy.