Saturday, August 14, 2010; A13
Arizona's attempt to create and enforce its own immigration policy has once again amplified -- and politicized -- the immigration debate in this country. But the fallout of that debate extends beyond our borders. The anti-immigrant push in Arizona has further alienated our neighbors throughout Latin America, who had been hoping for better relations with the United States after President Obama's election. We need to turn this opportunity to our advantage and engage with our neighbors throughout the Western Hemisphere.
Latin America has perhaps the greatest impact, in terms of trade and culture, on the daily lives of most Americans. U.S. exports to Latin America have grown faster in the past 11 years than to any other region, including Asia. Hispanics represent the biggest ethnic and most sought-after voting bloc in the United States. And nearly every country in North America, Central America, South America and the Caribbean now has a democratically elected government.
The time is right to leverage our trade and partnerships and advance a more collaborative relationship with our neighbors to the south. The Obama administration should consider these five steps:
-- First, it should aggressively lobby Congress for a comprehensive immigration law. Such legislation would include increased border security; a crackdown on illegal hires; and an accountable path to legalization that requires the 11 million immigrants here illegally to learn English, pass a background check, pay fines and get in line behind those who are trying to enter our country legally. Illegal immigrants come to our country from Central and South America and the Caribbean. This is not just an issue with Mexico; it is a hemispheric issue that needs a comprehensive response.
-- Second, as a first step to changing our policy toward Cuba, the president should issue an executive order to lift as much of the travel ban as possible. The travel ban penalizes U.S. businesses, lowers our credibility in Latin America and fuels anti-U.S. propaganda. Lifting the ban would also be a reciprocal gesture for Cuba's recent agreement, negotiated among the Catholic Church, the Spanish government and President Raul Castro, to release political dissidents. Obama has taken significant steps to loosen restrictions on family travel, remove limits for remittance and expand cooperation in other areas such as expanding the export of humanitarian goods from the United States into Cuba. Loosening travel restrictions is in U.S. interests and would be a bold move toward normalization of relations with Cuba.
-- Third, embark on a new Alliance for Progress with Latin America and the Caribbean, modeled on President John F. Kennedy's vision for the hemisphere. This should not be a one-sided alliance preconceived on expansion of U.S. markets, nor an agreement that imposes a U.S. solution. We need a new partnership in which we close the gap between the haves and have-nots by addressing both human and economic needs and giving more priority to the indigenous people of this hemisphere.
The United States needs to craft a hemispheric agenda that includes and emphasizes solutions to energy demands and climate change in Latin America and the Caribbean. Perhaps we need a hemispheric agreement on renewable energy that provides the technical know-how for the Americas and dramatically expands the biofuel agreement with Brazil. We also need to move quickly toward a real carbon-trading system that would reward countries that protect their forests.
-- Fourth, we should continue to seek trade agreements that are free and fair and contain strong standards on labor, the environment and human rights. Pending trade agreements with Colombia and Panama should be approved by Congress and once again establish the United States as a reliable trading partner. Additionally, the Obama administration should seek a hemispheric agreement on common labor, environmental and human rights standards. This bold move would promote our interests and image in the region.
-- Finally, we need a hemispheric accord on crime and violence. In New Mexico, we are working with law enforcement at the local, state and federal levels and on both sides of our border with Mexico to share intelligence and stop the illicit trade of narcotics, illegal guns and human trafficking. These are transnational issues that involve a coordinated effort to protect the safety of law-abiding citizens of the United States and Mexico. We must not allow the immigration debate to distract from our national responsibility to engage with our neighbors in Latin America and the Caribbean. Better hemispheric relations should be a foreign policy priority, not an afterthought.
The writer, a Democrat, is governor of New Mexico. He is former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and former energy secretary.