Latin America Skeptical of U.S. Immigration Debate

By Aaron Bell

Photo Courtesy of Larry Engel

Photo Courtesy of Larry Engel

Latin America’s subdued response to the immigration reform debate in the United States reflects a region-wide skepticism buttressed by the recent history of unfulfilled expectations.  Mexican media and a handful of Central American counterparts across the board have identified the Republican Party as the primary impediment to progress.  Conservative editorialists in the region, many of whom denounce President Obama and the Democrats as political opportunists rather than legitimate advocates for immigration reform, have also expressed frustration with the Republicans for not coming up with a better approach.  In particular, they think the party’s digging its own political grave by failing to rein in members and supporters who smear Hispanic immigrants as a threat to the ethnic identity of the United States.  Some have fond memories of Ronald Reagan’s 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which balanced security and enforcement with compassion and amnesty for undocumented migrants.

Mexico’s El Universal has been one of the most frequent contributors to the discussion of immigration reform, particularly with editorials giving greater attention to the human rights aspect of the debate.  They’ve called for reforms so that undocumented workers can “come out of the shadows,” so that families can stay together without fear of deportation, and so that harsh punishment meted out to undocumented workers caught crossing the border can come to an end.  The Mexican government has been relatively quiet on the issue of immigration reform in the previous decade, with the exception of a complaint lodged against Alabama’s HB 56, which requires police to take certain actions if they have “reasonable suspicion” that an immigrant is in the United States unlawfully.  But last summer Foreign Minister José Antonio Meade took to the pages of El Universal to complain that proposed enhanced border security measures were a detriment to regional development – and not a solution to immigration problems.

Public opinion data on Latin American views of the reform debate is limited, though circumstantial evidence suggests a connection between reforms and overall views of the United States.  Pew Research found that public opinion of the United States among Mexicans dipped sharply following the passage of Arizona SB 1070 in 2010, which laid the groundwork for HB 56.  Those numbers have since rebounded, with 66 percent of those polled holding favorable views of the United States in 2013, when many perceived that the Obama administration would achieve a positive outcome in the reform debate.  Although critical of Republican approaches, commentators who support reforms are not inherently in favor of the Democratic Party.  Only half of those Mexicans polled held a favorable view of the Obama administration, and some commentators have noted the high number of deportations on Obama’s watch.  For Latin American observers, humane and fair treatment for migrant workers and immigrants is the primary concern – and neither party appears poised to deliver.  The region’s skepticism that this round of debate over immigration reform will produce anything new appears at the moment to be warranted. 

Secretary-designate Kerry Hews to Old Line on Latin America

Photo by: cliff1066™ | Flickr | Creative Commons

Photo by: cliff1066™ | Flickr | Creative Commons

Senator John Kerry’s confirmation hearing to be Secretary of State focused overwhelmingly on Syria, Iran, and Libya, but there were glimpses of the nominee’s approach – at least for now – to Latin America.  His almost-certain successor as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), Democrat Bob Menendez of New Jersey, sees Latin America through a distinctly Cuban-American optic and asked Kerry predictably leading questions about the region.  Menendez asked Kerry how he would respond to change in the Western Hemisphere, highlighting “changing political tides,” potential transition in Venezuela, public security in Mexico and Colombia’s talks with the FARC.

Kerry’s responses did not challenge the premises of Menendez’s questions and stuck closely to recent U.S. policies.  He offered neither details nor hints of change.  Reflecting the State Department’s emphasis on a programmatic approach to the region, he highlighted security cooperation with Mexico and Central America, unspecified energy and climate initiatives with Brazil, and development assistance to Honduras and Guatemala.  Kerry praised former president Álvaro Uribe, under whose aegis most of the $8 billion in Plan Colombia funds were spent, for helping make Colombia “one of the great stories in Latin America.”  He termed Venezuela and its allies as “outlier states” and said U.S. policy should “induce people to make a better set of choices.”  When Arizona Republican Jeff Flake expressed support for a broader opening on Cuba travel, arguing that unleashing hordes of American students on spring break would pose a greater challenge to the Castro brothers than continued restrictions, Kerry smiled but remained quiet. Later, Menendez lashed back and turned the focus to Cuba’s human rights record.

As expected, Kerry did not advocate any major shifts or offer new ideas on U.S. policy toward Latin America – obviously preferring to avoid confrontation with Menendez and Republican Cuban-American Marco Rubio.  Kerry’s strategy was to ruffle no feathers.  His remarks about President Uribe, for example, appeared intended to assuage right-wingers unhappy with his focus as Chairman on the Colombian President’s dismal human rights record and lack of accountability for a host of abuses of power.  Likewise, agreeing with Menendez that President Chávez was a problem was thin gruel; eagerly awaiting the Venezuelan’s demise does little to address the shortcomings of U.S. leadership in the hemisphere.  

Latin America-watchers know well that Kerry and President Obama will be more focused on other regions, leaving space for the SFRC conservatives to weigh more heavily on Latin American policy than they already do.  Despite the Cuban-American community’s obvious shifts away from most elements of the right wing’s Cuba policy, Menendez and Rubio have already declared they will block any efforts toward better relations with Cuba even on a people-to-people level.  By extension, they will oppose any outreach to Venezuela before they believe regime change has occurred.  Nor did Kerry offer any departures from the U.S. war on drugs.  Stagnation on these two policies puts the United States on a collision course with even close friends in the region, who have said they will not participate in hemispheric conferences that continue to exclude Cuba and that advocate a more candid conversation about the failure of the “war on drugs.”  This approach risks continuing to undermine U.S. relevance and influence in the region.

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