Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Immigration Reform and Our Southern Neighbors

Ruth Melkonian


May 25, 2007

Since the early 1800s, when most Latin American nations became independent, the United States let European and other powers know that they were no longer welcome in the hemisphere (that was the Monroe Doctrine of 1823). If there was to be any meddling in Latin American affairs, the U.S. would do it, thank you very much.

To be fair, the U.S. approach to Latin America has not been solely one of providing military support for authoritarian allies. We have also been willing to utilize soft power tactics (Alliance for Progress, Caribbean Basin Initiative, etc.).

These days, American concerns in the region are multiple. Not only does the U.S. desire to retain its status as the primary outside influence (whether or not it pays consistent attention). It would also like to see in Latin America stability, democracy, open markets, respect for human rights, rule of law, and decreased drug trafficking and emigration.

As many have observed, various internal and external actors are more than anxious to replace American influence in the region with their own. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez wants the U.S. out, and rarely minces words. He has called President Bush a donkey, a drunkard, and the devil, to list a few of his choice epithets. During Bush's spring tour in Latin America, Chavez held a parallel tour in an effort to discredit Bush and strengthen anti-Americanism, socialism, and of course his own hand.

But Chavez is not without critics. Brazilian President Lula da Silva seems none too happy to have Chavez trying to direct the region, given that Brazil is the largest Latin American state and economy and Lula wants regional integration to take place on Brazilian terms.

In addition, China is now vigorously establishing profitable partnerships within the region: its trade, investment, and consumption of natural resources in Latin America have grown exponentially in the last two decades.

If the U.S. is to retain significant influence in the region, heavy-handed paternalism is unlikely to work. Brazil is more than willing to go its own way (having led a walkout at the 2003 World Trade Organization meeting in Cancun), and Venezuela clearly would like to take the region in another direction altogether. Even our economically dependent NAFTA partner Mexico was willing to break with the U.S. on the war in Iraq. Unfortunately, Bush's recent trip to the region was too little too late. Given commonly held perceptions in Latin America of unwelcome U.S. unilateralism, it is unlikely that the U.S. will have considerable influence in the region until a new administration comes to power, if then.

However, there is one thing that may be within the Bush administration's reach that could both advance justice and help stem the tide of anti-Americanism, namely, immigration reform. Granting greater security and respect to Latin American immigrants who are working in the U.S. (which is not the same as giving outright amnesty to all of them), would boost support from a number of Latin American governments. Those governments desire a continuation of the flow of remittances, protection of their citizens while in the U.S., and the assurance that most of the workers will eventually return home to be contributing, civic-minded citizens of means. As Bush has made clear, he wants the U.S. to guarantee that immigrants are "treated without amnesty but without animosity." Yet garnering bipartisan support in Congress on comprehensive immigration reform is proving to be very difficult.

A just immigration resolution may be one of the only fronts on which to gain credibility and appropriate influence in a region in which the U.S. has all too often been known for interference or neglect, rather than respectful engagement. The president and Congress should go all out to forge a sound new law on comprehensive immigration reform, and they should do it now.

—Ruth Melkonian, Assistant Professor of Political Studies
    Gordon College

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”