Sunday, November 21, 2010

Ariz. immigration law strains U.S.-Latin America relations

By Alan Gomez, USA TODAY

When Arizona passed a law in April allowing police to conduct roadside immigration checks, Mexican officials blasted the law as a prejudiced attack against its citizens in the state. That condemnation has spread throughout Latin America.

Ambassador Luis Gallegos of Ecuador presented the law Nov. 5 to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, which sends recommendations to nations to improve rights. Gallegos said they were extremely concerned that the Arizona law would lead to widespread stereotyping of both legal and illegal immigrants. The council included it in the recommendations it sent to the U.S. State Department. Ecuador is one of 10 Latin American countries that signed on to a brief opposing the law in a federal lawsuit challenging Arizona's rule.

State Department spokesman Charles Luoma-Overstreet said the law has impacted relations between the United States and Latin American countries, becoming a topic of discussion "in all our interactions" with those nations.

"The countries in Latin America are already perceiving some distance and disengagement from the U.S.," said Mauricio Cardenas, director of the Latin American Initiative at the Brookings Institution. "(The Arizona law) makes Latin America more and more interested in developing stronger relations with other parts of the world."

The law, known as S.B. 1070, requires Arizona's 15,000 police officers to determine the immigration status of suspects they've pulled over, detained or arrested if there is a "reasonable suspicion" the person is in the country illegally.

The Department of Justice filed a lawsuit challenging the law, arguing that immigration enforcement is strictly a federal responsibility. A federal judge halted the core aspects of it, and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, is appealing. Lawyers made oral arguments in the case before the 9th District Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Nov. 1.

The judges allowed Mexico to file a "friend of the court" brief arguing against the law, and nine other countries signed on. The countries argue that the law harms their citizens living and working in Arizona and could hurt "bilateral economic, immigration and security policies" between the United States and those countries.

Brewer has said the state law was necessary to combat the constant flow of illegal immigrants that has been ignored by the federal government. After the appeals court allowed the Latin American countries to weigh in on the lawsuit, she objected, saying the dispute should be resolved internally.

"I fervently believe that arguments by a foreign government have no place in a U.S. legal proceeding," she said in a statement. "Arizonans strongly believe, in a bipartisan fashion, that foreign nations should not be meddling in an internal legal dispute between the United States and one of its states."

The outcome of that lawsuit could go a long way toward determining how much of an impact the Arizona law, and similar bills that will be considered in more than a dozen state legislatures around the country, would have on U.S. relations with Latin America.

Gallegos said more laws similar to Arizona's will cause significant concern.

"My basic question is, are we going to have a more protectionist United States that is more inclined to discriminating and persecuting groups like the migrants?" Gallegos said in an interview from Geneva. "We would hope that the federal government would be wise enough to enact a law which encompasses these issues."

A senior official with the Brazilian Embassy who was not authorized to be quoted by name said that country's relationship with the United States has not been harmed because the Obama administration has not only spoken out against the law but initiated the lawsuit that halted its implementation.

Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, worries that Obama's stance on the law may not be enough to soothe other countries.

"I'm sure that Mexico is happy that the Obama administration is challenging these laws. But I'm not sure they're persuaded that the Obama administration is in control," Alden said. "The worry is that the states are going to start driving the bus, too."

Alden said it's the latest in a long line of slights to the region that started with the Bush administration and has continued under Obama.

He pointed to the collapse of a proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, which would have lowered trade barriers among Western Hemisphere countries similar to the North American Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico. Individual trade agreements between the United States and Colombia and Panama have been unable to clear Congress.

Alden said Bush and Obama have added to the "militarization" of the southwest border. The number of Customs and Border Patrol agents has increased from 9,000 to 20,000 since 2000, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The Obama administration recently boasted of setting a record for the number of people deported — more than 392,000 in fiscal year 2010, according to Homeland Security.

"If you put (the Arizona law) on top of all that, it's the latest in a pretty long series," Alden said.

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