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The World

On immigration, Bush is grilled in Guatemala

He wants Congress to pass comprehensive reform this summer.

March 13, 2007|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

GUATEMALA CITY — President Bush promised Monday to launch a new push to overhaul U.S. immigration laws and faced tough questions about deportation during a visit to Guatemala.

Bush said he wanted to get a comprehensive immigration deal, similar to one that stalled last summer, through Congress before its summer recess. It would be the first time Bush has pushed such legislation since Democrats took control of both houses after November's elections.

"It seems like to me we've got to get this done by August," Bush said at a joint news conference with Guatemalan President Oscar Berger. But he added that he was not trying to set a timetable.

"We don't believe in timetables. But I do believe in pressing hard and working with Democrats and Republicans to get it done," Bush said. "We don't want people to feel like they have to get stuffed into the back of a truck and pay exorbitant fees to coyotes to come and try and realize dreams. There's got to be a better system."

A hard-negotiated immigration deal foundered in Congress last year, scuttled by election-year politics that divided Republicans. The law, which passed the Senate with a narrow majority, would have permitted illegal immigrants who paid back taxes and met other criteria to apply for citizenship.

Bush also lamented what he called the lack of "a coherent Republican position in the Senate" on immigration reform.

The president was pressed by local reporters to defend his approval of a border fence law and workplace raids in Massachusetts last week that sent hundreds of illegal Central American workers home. Some were forced to leave their U.S.-born children behind.

Bush said that one answer to the immigration problem is the unfettered commerce embodied in accords such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which Guatemala joined last year.

"I also believe most citizens in Guatemala would rather find meaningful jobs at home instead of having to travel to a foreign land to work," Bush said. "And therefore, the more we can enhance prosperity in our neighborhood, the more we can encourage trade that actually yields jobs and stability, the less likely it is somebody who is worried about putting food on the table for their family will be coming to the United States."

Immigration is a huge issue in Guatemala, where the national economy is increasingly dependent on remittances from immigrants in the United States. Guatemala's central bank estimates that such money transfers will exceed $4 billion in 2007, a sum equal to about 7% of this nation's gross domestic product.

U.S. officials say about 1.2 million Guatemalans live in the United States, many illegally. That is the equivalent of about 10% of the population of Guatemala, where poverty is rife in the countryside and organized crime terrorizes the capital.

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Anger over U.S. arrests

Arrests of Guatemalans living in the U.S. illegally often are front-page news here, and last week's detention of more than 200 undocumented immigrants, the bulk of them Guatemalans, sparked widespread anger. In a Mass on Sunday at Guatemala City's Metropolitan Cathedral, Cardinal Rodolfo Quezada chastised the U.S. government for separating dozens of Guatemalan parents from their U.S.-born children.

"Today I feel a pain in my heart and I invite you to pray for these children and their parents," Quezada said, calling on Berger to "put his pants on" and press the U.S. to pass an immigration reform law.

During the news conference, Bush defended the deportations and denied Guatemalan reports that the immigrants were targeted by nationality.

"I'm sure they don't want to be sent home, but nevertheless, we enforce laws," Bush said. "You've got to understand that when we enforce the law, we do so in a fair and rational way. It just so happened that Guatemalans were working there illegally."

Berger made it clear that the topic had been a point of some disagreement between the two presidents, but he smoothed over the differences, expressing optimism about the chances of a new immigration law.

"The Guatemalan people would have preferred a more clear and positive response: no more deportations," Berger said. "But historically, I think that we have never been so close to finding a solution to this problem as now."

A senior administration official said Bush's visit was designed to support Berger's efforts to "do the right thing" in improving accountability and democracy in Guatemala.

Lurking in the background, however, was a scandal surrounding the slaying of three visiting Salvadoran legislators and their driver last month, and the subsequent killing of four police officers charged in connection with the crime. The killings have exposed allegations that governments, police and traffickers in Central America have been working in collusion to transport Colombian cocaine to the U.S. market through Mexico. Officials say about 90% of the drug destined for U.S. markets passes through the narrow isthmus.

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