WASHINGTON – With President Bush in Mexico hearing an earful from Mexican President Vicente Fox, those hoping to influence the outcome of the immigration debate now in the Senate may be forced to take note of would-be allies — or opponents — outside the U.S. borders.
Earlier this month, officials from 11 Latin American countries — including Mexico, Colombia and the Dominican Republic — signed a joint declaration during a meeting in Guatemala saying they will do whatever they can to push for a U.S. immigration policy that includes a guest worker program. It's the third time leaders from those countries have met to discuss U.S. immigration policy in as many months.
For those foreign countries, the stakes are high to keep "expatriates" in the United States, say policy analysts.
"America provides an awful lot of money to a lot of foreign governments. Mexico is estimated to get something like $20 billion a year in remittances. That's money that's visible," Michael Cutler, a former INS agent who is now a senior fellow with the Center for Immigration Studies, told FOXNews.com at a forum earlier this month.
Immigration has taken on a prominence it hasn't seen in decades. As many as 12 million illegal immigrants are estimated to live and work in the United States, half of them from Mexico. A steady flow of hundreds daily try to jump the U.S.-Mexico border.
In an attempt to protect the southern border, security-minded groups like the Minuteman Project are volunteering to try to spot and report illegal immigrants at gaps in the border, and are protesting at makeshift job sites where illegals are frequently hired by individuals for under-the-table employment in home improvement projects.
The Senate is now debating what to do with illegals working inside the United States and how to stem the constant influx of new illegal immigrants.
President Bush and others are advocating a guest worker program that would allow illegal immigrants to continue to work in the United States for a limited time if they register under a government program. Proponents insist the program would not amount to amnesty, nor would it fast-track illegal immigrants for citizenship ahead of those who have entered the country through legal means.
But the opposite side of the debate was crystallized in the House bill passed in December by a 239-182 vote. Sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the bill would tighten employment rules, increase border security measures and provide money to build a virtual fence along the southern U.S. border.
Currently, being an illegal alien in the United States is a misdemeanor; criminal provisions exist for illegal entry and illegal employment. Sensenbrenner's bill makes illegals' presence in the U.S. a felony. It also does not offer a guest worker program or any type of provision to let those who enter illegally stay legally in the country.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist also omitted a guest worker provision in the bill he introduced on the Senate floor Wednesday, but a competing bill overshadowing Frist's is a compromise proposal by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. That bill, which passed the Senate panel on Monday night in a 12-6 vote, does include a guest worker program and is currently being evaluated alongside Frist's proposal.
Southern Push for the Status Quo
As U.S. policies have begun to take shape, foreign governments are taking more interest. Speaking with Bush by his side on Thursday, Fox told reporters that it isn't up to him and Bush to come up with a guest worker program that could affect more than 6 million illegal immigrants from Mexico who reside in the United States. But, he said, they will do what they can to make sure the U.S. Congress has as much information as possible to help make its decisions.
In addition to Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic, also in attendance at the Latin American roundtable earlier this month were Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and Ecuador.
Officials from those nations say they back a program that doesn't penalize those already across the border and won't rock the economies on either side of it.
Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs Luis Ernesto Derbez told reporters in Guatemala that in addition to highlighting the mutual interests between Latin America and the United States over narcotrafficking and terrorism, U.S. lawmakers must be educated about the value of an immigrant workforce.
"The contributions that our immigrants make to the U.S. economy by paying their taxes, and [to] our countries' economies by sending their remittances" is of high value, Derbez said, according to Spanish-language news reports.
Remittances are cash or wire transfers immigrants send back to family members in their home countries. The Pew Hispanic Center estimated in a report last year that remittances sent from the United States to Latin American countries in 2003 equaled about $38 billion.
Derbez said he foresees a "favorable resolution" to the debate.
But in a phone interview, Julia Sweig, director of the Council on Foreign Relations' Latin America program, said the foreign governments have few options to leverage in the immigration debate.
"I guess the leverage they have is the leverage of not cooperating because they know that building a wall, or putting more boots on the ground, to date, has not been a deterrent” to illegal immigration, Sweig said. "What we have, kind of in a deep sense, is the knowledge that the pressure of their population to come here is not going to go away."
She said that while Mexico and other foreign governments could use international trade as a playing card, she doubted that would be the tactic employed.
"It's hard for me to imagine a Latin American country cutting off its nose to spite its face," Sweig said.
Cutler, from the Center for Immigration Studies, said the remittances represent foreign governments' vested interest in continued illegal immigration, which presents a problem.
"What we're getting are quite a few Mexican nationals who work in the United States and send their money home. So certainly these countries are highly motivated to have their folks enter our country unimpeded," Cutler said.
Cutler added that the estimates from remittances do not include illegal money gained from the drug trade and other criminal activities that end up benefiting the economies of these southern nations.
But Mark Krikorian, director of Cutler's organization, said the responsibilities lie in the hands of the federal government, not other countries.
"The problem here is not really Vicente Fox. ... He's pursuing his national interests in a way that's appropriate for the president of a foreign government. The problem is that our State Department and our federal government in general isn't pushing back — in a very polite and constructive way — and saying, 'Mind your own business,'" Krikorian said.
Steve Johnson, a senior policy analyst with The Heritage Foundation, said he doesn't think the Latin American push will have much effect. He suggested those countries would be more successful going on a public relations campaign with the American public on how they will attempt to improve economic conditions in their home countries.
Johnson said new immigration policy must be coupled with foreign economic programs, a guest worker plan, increased border security and other measures, and foreign governments need to increase their economic strength — mostly through government reforms that reduce red tape and increase social mobility — because the current level of immigration is unsustainable in the long run for both the United States and the foreign countries.
"We end up absorbing everybody else's problems," Johnson said.
Fixing those problems won't be easy, he added, "but it would be naïve to think there's a silver bullet."