Immigration Reform: Bush's Big Promises

The President assured leaders across Latin America that he would push for reform. Now, he has to tackle Congress

On his week-long visit to five Latin American countries that wound up on Mar. 14, President George W. Bush tried to keep the focus on trade, on U.S. aid for anti-poverty efforts, and on the potential for turning the region's sugar-cane crops into ethanol. But time and again, the subject kept returning to what's uppermost in most Latin Americans' minds these days: immigration.

It's easy to see why. An estimated 12 million to 14 million Latin Americans live illegally in the U.S., many of them toiling as gardeners, nannies, and restaurant and hotel workers. Bush has long pushed for immigration reform that would create a temporary guest-worker program, so that migrants doing jobs that Americans don't want could emerge from the shadows and live legally. But it's a controversial issue, and Congress has been unable to reach agreement on legislation that would also provide a path to citizenship for some migrants who have lived in the U.S. for many years.

Reminders of the problem confronted Bush on every stop of his tour. In Guatemala, for example, President Óscar Berger expressed his concern over a Mar. 6 roundup of more than 300 illegal immigrants who were sewing vests and backpacks in a Massachusetts sweatshop. A number of those sent to Texas for deportation were Guatemalan women, many of whose children were stranded at day-care centers. Officials later released some of the single mothers, but the raid shocked Guatemala, where an estimated 10% of the population has migrated to the U.S. to work, mostly illegally. Last year, the migrants sent home $3.6 billion to their families, an amount equal to around 10% of Guatemala's gross domestic product.

Opposing the Fence

Bush was unapologetic for the arrests. "I'm sure they don't want to be sent home, but nevertheless, we enforce laws," he said in a joint press conference with Berger. But Bush promised to go back to Washington and push Congress hard for immigration reform and a guest-worker program. "I think there's pretty widespread consensus that there ought to be a temporary worker plan that says you can come legally to the United States to do a job Americans are not doing, for a period of time," he said.

At the same time, Bush said he was hopeful that CAFTA, the free trade agreement between the U.S. and six Central American and Caribbean countries including Guatemala, would create more jobs in Guatemala and slow the flow of migrants to the U.S.

In Mexico, President Felipe Calderón made clear his opposition to U.S. plans to add 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border, which he has previously compared to the Berlin Wall. Calderón told Bush that the best way to stop illegal immigration was to promote economic growth and job-creation in Mexico, not by erecting barriers.

"We do consider in a respectful way that it would be better to stop the migration by building a kilometer of highway in Michoacán or Zacatecas than 10 kilometers of walls on the border," he told Bush upon his arrival in Mexico. Calderón's home state of Michoacán is one of the biggest sources of migrants to the U.S.: Around 2 million people—one out of every three natives of Michoacán—are believed to live north of the border.

Determined to Stay Friendly

Calderón's predecessor, Vicente Fox, staked his presidency on winning major concessions from the Bush Administration on immigration. But strong opposition in the U.S. Congress scuttled those hopes. Calderón, 44, who like Bush was a graduate student at Harvard, is determined to prevent the country's complex, close relationship with the U.S from being derailed by the contentious immigration issue.

As he did in Guatemala, Bush assured the Mexican President he would push for reform. Speaking at a news conference with Calderón before leaving for Washington on Mar. 14, Bush declared: "A good migration law will help both economies and will help the security of both countries."

But Bush also stressed on his tour that the 2,000-mile border with Mexico must be monitored more closely. An estimated 10 million Mexicans live illegally in the U.S., and some 400,000 slip across the border annually, joined by tens of thousands of Central Americans and even Brazilians. Last year, Bush signed legislation authorizing construction of additional fencing and the placement of electronic sensors. The number of Border Patrol agents was also increased.

High Stakes for Bush

"We've got a very long border, and it needs to be enforced," Bush said. The Administration's efforts are already having an impact, and that could make it easier to win Congressional support for immigration reform. According to the Homeland Security Dept., border apprehensions fell by 30% in the five-month period ended in February, compared to the same period a year earlier, as fewer migrants attempted to cross because of increased patrols.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who had planned to visit Mexico this week but had to postpone the trip, is expected to present an immigration-reform bill for a Senate vote in April or May. Mexico's new ambassador to Washington, Arturo Sarukhan, has said he plans to embark on a serious diplomatic effort in the U.S. to win public and Congressional support for immigration reform, a campaign similar to the one Mexico carried out prior to the 1993 vote approving the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Having promised the presidents of Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico that he will lobby Congress for immigration reform, Bush now has his work cut out for him. "If the U.S. ends up building a 700-mile wall and doesn't get a guest-worker program approved, let alone some mechanism for giving legal status to people who are in the U.S. without permission, whatever goodwill Bush has gotten out of his trip will evaporate," says Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

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