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U.S. border arguments wake the neighbors

April 07, 2006|Alexandra Starr | ALEXANDRA STARR, a former Organization of American States fellow, writes frequently about immigration and Latin America.

THERE HAS BEEN no shortage of political prognosticating over how the immigration debate in Congress could affect the 2006 midterm elections and the 2008 presidential ambitions of various U.S. senators.

Americans aren't the only ones going to the polls, however. Voters in Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru are electing presidents this year. Citizens in those countries have a stake in the course that Congress and President Bush ultimately adopt: The vast majority of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. are from Latin America, and the remittances they send home in some cases basically keep their countries' economies afloat.

If the U.S. opts for beefing up border security and making illegal residence in the United States a felony, it will directly affect the lives of many Latin Americans living outside our borders. And that, in turn, would no doubt fuel anti-Americanism at a time when the region gets a new slate of leaders.

Thus far, candidates identified with the United States haven't fared too well. Bolivia's new president, Evo Morales, dubbed himself "a nightmare" for the U.S. when he was on the hustings last year. Former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias -- a staunch supporter of the Central American Free Trade Agreement -- won his nation's presidential contest this year by the narrowest of margins, despite the fact he had been forecast to win by a landslide. That a hero such as Arias suffered for his identification with a trade pact that implicitly promises closer ties to the U.S. was a sign of how poorly we are perceived by our southern neighbors.

Relations between the United States and Latin America are, in fact, at their lowest point since the Cold War. A 2005 Zogby poll found that 81% of Latin American elites disapprove of Bush's job performance. U.S. aid to the region has decreased, and trade negotiations in South America have come to a standstill. At the same time, U.S. influence is being challenged aggressively by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has become Latin America's Santa Claus. He has tapped his country's oil wealth to shower the region with billions of dollars in aid and backed presidential candidates -- such as Morales and Ollanta Humala in Peru -- who advocate greater independence from the United States.

In the current climate, adopting an immigration policy that implicitly aims to keep Latin Americans out and jeopardizes the standing of those living in the United States will no doubt erode our standing all the more.

That, in turn, could help seal Manuel Lopez Obrador's front-runner status in the Mexican presidential election in July. The populist former mayor of Mexico City has advocated more independence from the United States. That stance is going to look more appealing if Congress cracks down on the approximately 6 million illegal Mexican immigrants living in the United States. It's not lost on Mexicans that President Vicente Fox's "special relationship" with Bush has produced virtually zip for our southern neighbor. And what does it say when your ally is poised to spend $2.2 billion on a fence to keep you out?

Relations with other countries that send a huge number of their countrymen northward could suffer too. Our standing in Central American countries tends to be better than in South America in part because citizens living closer to the United States often have family members north of the border. People in the U.S. from Latin America and the Caribbean sent home $53 billion in 2005, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. The Bush administration has leveraged this connection to shape political contests in the region. In the 2004 El Salvadoran presidential election, for example, senior administration officials obliquely warned that the flow of cash could be affected if a leftist candidate won the election. Although this was an idle threat, it probably did increase pro-U.S. candidate Tony Saca's impressive margin of victory.

For a sense of how big a difference the presence of Latin Americans in the U.S. can make in diplomatic relations, it is instructive to compare the Salvadoran election with Bolivia's presidential showdown in 2002. When the former U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, Manuel Rocha, hinted a few days before voters cast their ballots that a Morales victory could jeopardize U.S. aid to the nation, Morales' poll numbers shot up to the point where he nearly won the election that year. Bolivia has far fewer countrymen residing in the United States than El Salvador, and so remittances are essentially a non-factor there.

How we ultimately deal with the millions of Latin Americans living here could help determine how friendly the leaders of their homelands are to the United States in the future.

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