WASHINGTON -- Brenda Guzman-Sandoval, a married mother of five U.S. citizens, was deported earlier this month after advocacy efforts to keep her in the United States failed. Jose Luis Martinez was deported in September of last year to Honduras, a place he hadn’t known since he left as a child more than two decades ago. Mirna Valenzuela was sent back to Mexico in December when a Tucson, Ariz. casino reported her to police after she won a $1,200 jackpot. Felipe Montes, the father of three U.S. citizen children, was deported to Mexico in 2010, and his children were put in foster care after his wife became unable to care for them. He more recently won custody of his kids, but was barred from remaining in the U.S. despite appeals to the federal government.
Under the Defense of Marriage Act, which is now under consideration by the Supreme Court, there was no way for Richard Dennis to stop his would-be husband, Jair Izquierdo, from being deported to Peru in 2010. Dennis said that Izquierdo is unhappy in Peru, which he first left because he had been harassed for being gay. They have stayed together despite the obvious strains on their relationship, Dennis said. They see each other two or three times a year.
"I live my life in those two weekends when I'm able to go down to South America," he said.
The Obama administration has disrupted a record number of lives in the name of proving to Republicans that it is tough when it comes to enforcement, promising the immigrant community a better future while it infuses their present lives with fear, uncertainty and heartbreak. For many of those whose lives have become currency in the political exchange, there will be no redemption.
There was one bright spot, however, in a bipartisan Senate bill unveiled last week by the "gang of eight." The bill would allow deportees to apply to return to the United States if they are young and entered the United States as a child, or if they are a spouse or parent of a citizen or lawful permanent resident. Others, such as those who entered the country after Dec. 31, 2011, or were deported based on criminal charges, would be excluded.
In the meantime, well over a million families -- often including U.S. citizen children -- are caught in the political crossfire.
"I get calls everyday from around the country with people facing separation of their families due to deportation policies," said Tania Unzueta, an organizer with the immigrant advocacy group National Day Laborer Organizing Network. "The Obama administration is not only imparting fear and suffering on our communities, but also criminalizing immigrant and Latino communities. Some of the people who are being deported for 'aggravated felonies' or 'serious crimes' are people who are victims of broken immigration laws, trying to survive. It is not just that he is separating unprecedented numbers of families, he is feeding a machine of mass incarceration."
President Barack Obama has repeatedly claimed he cannot and will not halt deportation orders until immigration reform is passed, despite calls to do so and his administration's record of using discretion to close some removal cases.
"There're still obviously gonna be people who get caught up in the system ... that's heartbreaking," Obama told Telemundo's José Díaz-Balart in January. "But that's why we're pushing for comprehensive immigration reform. Obviously, if this was an issue that I could do unilaterally I would have done it a long time ago."
Obama's administration has funding for about 400,000 deportations per year, and has tried to target its enforcement, removing more so-called criminals -- who range from hard-crime offenders to those arrested for driving with a broken tail light -- and allowing some others, such as undocumented young people, to stay. More than half of those removed from the U.S. in 2012 had been convicted of a misdemeanor or felony, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, while more than 150,000 undocumented young people have been told they can stay since the implementation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program last August.
Advocates say those priorities are a start, but they're not enough to fix the problem, which is one reason reform must come as quickly as possible.
"We must understand the urgency of our fight and of our struggle," Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) told the crowd at a major immigration rally outside the Capitol earlier this month. "They will deport 1,400 people today. There will be 300 American citizen children who will come home and not find their dad or their mom."
After the release of the gang of eight bill, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called for the Obama administration to stop deporting immigrants who would be eligible for a path to citizenship under the legislation.
"That is the sensible and humane thing to do," Trumka said in a statement last week. "When a war is about to end, it makes sense to reach a cease-fire rather than extend the suffering needlessly."
Nancy Landa, now 32, arrived in Tijuana, Mexico, on a bus in 2009 with no belongings, no job and nowhere to stay. She was caught in the U.S. by immigration authorities earlier that day and quickly deported, she says, without a chance to appeal her case to an immigration judge or receive help from a lawyer. She hadn't been in Tijuana since she was 9 years old, when she and her family crossed the border without authorization to come to the United States.
"You're in shock that entire time," Landa said of being deported. "For most of the time I was detained, I had no clue what my life would be after that. ... I was placed on a bus. At that point, you go from a state of shock to being afraid."
There have been more than 1.5 million deportations since fiscal year 2009, with most in the four years Obama has been president, although some took place during the final months of former President George W. Bush's term. There is little indication the rates are slowing. In 2012, which broke the previous year's record with 409,849 deportations, that amounted to an average of 1,123 people each day. While the current administration hasn't yet surpassed Bush's deportation totals for two terms, it's well on track to do so, with 2 million projected to be deported by 2014. Most of those deported are Latinos, who also make up the majority of the some 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S.
Sometimes, when allies are able to make enough noise, people are allowed to stay. But for every deportation they stop -- often through calls for ICE to drop cases against non-criminals -- there are plenty they cannot, or don't hear about in the first place, said Lizbeth Mateo, a 28-year-old undocumented immigrant who works with the advocacy group Dream Activist in Washington, D.C. She found out earlier this month while at the immigration rally here that her father's uncle had been picked up by immigration authorities.
"We have successful stories, but for every successful story that we have, there are many others that we don't know about, and some that we do and we're not able to do much or ICE just doesn't help on those cases," she said.
"This is indicative of a devastating systemic problem -- how many U.S. citizen children are forced to leave the only country they know as home or be placed in foster care away from their parents?" advocacy leader and Presente.org Executive Director Arturo Carmona said in a statement after Felipe Montes lost his fight to remain in the U.S. "It is unacceptable that as lawmakers are discussing 'immigration reform' and 'family unity' they are allowing deportations like this to continue taking place."
Nancy Landa was deported too soon to apply for reprieve under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, even though she may have been a prime candidate as a college graduate who entered the U.S. as a child. She has adjusted to life in Mexico, and hopes to attend graduate school in the fall to study migration. But it's still difficult, she said.
"I got upset that he didn't do this before," she said of Obama's decision to grant deferred action to some undocumented young people. "For me he was three years late."
Even years later, the impacts of deportation don't get much easier, said Giselle Stern Hernández, whose husband, Roberto, was deported under Bush in April 2001. The two were married shortly before, and she said she mistakenly thought it would help him obtain legal status despite a prior deportation for illegal gun possession when he was 19 years old. She lived with him in Mexico for about 10 years, but returned to the U.S. in 2011 so she could work. Hernández said she's "sure" reform won't help her husband.
"It will not unite my family in any way, of that I'm very sure," she said. "And I think it will not unite many families who are here. For me, with all the discussions about comprehensive immigration reform, where I come from is first, the deportations must stop. While there's that talk on the one hand, and the deportations are continuing on a daily basis, there's a powerful disconnect."
Ana Benedetti and Chelsea Keine contributed reporting.
CORRECTION: The original article inaccurately stated that Jair Izquierdo had been deported once to Peru prior to his 2010 removal from the U.S. It has been corrected.