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Reprinted with permission.
By Bill Richardson
Governor of New Mexico
Arizona’s attempt to create and enforce its own immigration policy has once again amplified — and politicized — the immigration debate in this country. Unfortunately, the anti-immigrant push in Arizona has also further alienated our neighbors throughout Latin America who had been hoping for better relations with the United States after the election of President Obama.
Rather than throw our hands up, I believe we have an opportunity to take bold action 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. The U.S. exports more than $219 billion annually to Latin America — three times more than our exports to China. Hispanics now represent America’s biggest ethnic and most sought after voting block. And nearly every country in the region — 34 out of 35 — now has democratically elected governments.
The time is right to leverage our existing trade and partnerships, and advance a more meaningful and collaborative relationship with our neighbors to the south.
Here are five suggestions the Obama Administration should consider:
First, we must aggressively lobby the U.S. Congress for a comprehensive immigration law that includes increased border security, cracking down on illegal hires, and an accountable path to legalization that requires the 11 million immigrants here illegally to learn English, pass a back ground check pay a fine for being here illegally, and get behind those trying to get in here legally. We must remember that not all illegal immigrant come from Mexico — they also come from Central and South America and the Caribbean. This is not just an issue with Mexico; it is a hemispheric issue.
Second, we need to change our policy toward Cuba. As a first step, the President should issue an Executive Order to lift as much of the travel ban as possible for all Americans. The travel ban penalizes American businesses, lowers our credibility in Latin America, and fuels anti-US propaganda. Such an Executive Order would also be a reciprocal gesture for Cuba’s recent release of political dissidents negotiated by the Catholic Church, the Spanish Government, and President Raul Castro. President Obama has taken significant steps to loosen restrictions on family travel, remove limits for remittance and expand other areas of cooperation. An Executive Order loosening travel restriction is in America’s interests and would be a bold move toward normalization of relations.
Third, let’s embark on a new Alliance of Progress with Latin America and the Caribbean, modeled on President Kennedy’s vision for the hemisphere. It should not be a one-sided alliance preconceived on economic expansion of U.S. markets, nor an agreement that imposes an American 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.
We need 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 — rewarding countries that protect their forests.
Fourth, we should continue to seek trade agreements that are free and fair and contain strong labor, environmental, and human-rights standards. Pending trade agreements with Columbia and Panama should be approved by Congress and once again establish the U.S. as a reliable trading partner. Additionally, the Obama Administration should seek a hemispheric agreement on common labor, environmental, and human rights standards. This would be a bold move that 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 every level and on both sides of the border with Mexico to share intelligence and stop the illicit trade of narcotics, illegal guns and human trafficking. This is a trans-national issue that involves a coordinated effort to protect the safety of law-abiding citizens.
While the immigration debate rages within our borders, we must not allow it to distract from our responsibility to engage with our neighbors in Latin America and the Caribbean. We should make better hemispheric relations a foreign policy priority, not an afterthought.