March 23, 2007

Commentary:

Bush’s Swing Through Latin America Did Little for Debate at Home

By Dan Restrepo
New America Media

WASHINGTON — In a world where national interest and reason held sway, President Bush’s six-day swing to Latin America should have helped the cause of comprehensive immigration reform here at home. Unfortunately, the reform debate is not being carried out in such a world.

In welcoming President Bush to their respective countries, the presidents of Mexico and Guatemala made it unmistakably clear that their countries would benefit from a sensible solution to the immigration challenges currently confronting the United States. In no uncertain terms, they called for meaningful action on reform.

Such calls from two allies deeply affected by the immigration dynamic in the Americas should have added to the momentum for reform in Washington. After all, as the United States struggles to recover from a generational low point in relations with the Americas, acting in a way that is viewed positively by our neighbors should be an additional compelling reason for enacting comprehensive reform.

It is not at all clear, however, that the message broke through in any meaningful way into the Washington debate on immigration reform. While President Bush was addressing immigration in Mexico and Guatemala, presumably in hopes of creating some momentum for reform, events in Washington suggested the path forward was becoming more complicated, not less.

As the president toured the Americas, talks between the principal sponsors of comprehensive immigration reform in the last Congress — Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)—reportedly reached a stalemate with Sen. McCain backing away from a lead role on the issue. That development, more than anything President Bush may have hoped to achieve in his attempt at regional diplomacy, currently defines the immigration debate within the halls of Congress.

The need for bipartisan cooperation on immigration reform coupled with the loss of visible leadership by Sen. McCain requires proponents of immigration reform to seek a new Republican champion. Finding that person, appears to be hostage to consultations the White House, through DHS Secretary Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Gutierrez, is currently holding with Senate Republicans. Until those talks, reportedly aimed at finding guiding principles for immigration reform, conclude it is difficult to see any high profile Senate Republican stepping in to fill the important role abandoned by McCain.

That President Bush time and again pointed to this intra-party discussion, when questioned about the prospects for immigration reform during his stops in Mexico and Guatemala, underscores that internal political machination, more than any sense of regional context, is guiding the current discussion of immigration reform in Congress.

Through his travel itinerary, President Bush may have wanted to send the dual messages that the United States is cognizant of the impact that our immigration system has on others and that he respects understands, and values the input of our neighbors on this important issue. Through his words and action, however, President Bush sent a very different message, one that emphasized the domestic political dynamics of solving the comprehensive immigration reform puzzle.

Although hard domestic political bargains will have to be struck to make immigration reform a reality, this is not to say that the views of our neighbors and the impact of our broken immigration system on the region are discounted by all who are working for comprehensive immigration reform in Washington. That is clearly not the case.

Leaders across the political spectrum understand the need to improve relations with the more than 500 million people with whom we share the Americas. Many, including President Bush, also understand that enacting comprehensive immigration reform would help that cause.

Despite this understanding, whatever impact the president’s trip may have had on the debate is still being drowned out by other factors.

Dan Restrepo is Director of The Americas Project at the Center for American Progress.

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