Latin Leaders Balk at US "Wall"
- View SourceThe proposed 700-mile barrier is to be a big issue at Thursday's North
Latin Leaders Balk at US "Wall"
By Danna Harman
The Christian Science Monitor
Monday 27 March 2006
Nogales, Mexico - Some envision a wall. Others, a fence - or even
a "virtual" fence of cameras, lighting, and sensors along the
US-Mexican border. Whatever form it will take, the US is discussing,
planning, and, in some places, already building it - much to the fury
and frustration of neighbors south of the border.
As Mexican President Vicente Fox prepares to meet Thursday with
President Bush and Canada's new prime minister, Stephen Harper, in
Cancún, the proposed 700-mile, $2.2 billion barrier is a major point
of contention - not just for the US and Mexico, but for the US and the
Regional leaders - whose countries in 2004 received some $45
billion sent home from immigrants in the US - have met three times
recently to discuss how best to oppose it.
"At a moment when relations between the US and Latin America are
at their lowest point since the end of the cold war, this fence
proposal is viewed as a terrible affront," says Michael Shifter, vice
president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank.
"It is hard to imagine any other symbol that more strongly
reinforces the image of the "ugly American" and is more sharply at
odds with the "good neighbor" concept."
It's not just the barrier, but other issues as well in proposed US
immigration reform legislation that irk regional leaders and caused
hundreds of thousands of people to protest in multiple US cities over
the past few days.
The US Congress passed a tough immigration bill in December that
would make it a felony for illegal immigrants to be in the US, impose
new penalties on employers who hire them, and erect a fence along
one-third of the border's total length.
At present, just over 80 miles of federally enforced barriers and
fencing are erected at strategic points on the border, mainly in Texas
This week, the Senate will debate a comprehensive bill that is
expected to include guest-worker provisions and avenues for legal
residency, while at the same time beefing up border security. So far,
a draft of the bill calls only for expanding and reinforcing fencing
in Arizona - the border state with the most illegal immigration
traffic - and adding 200 miles of vehicle barriers there, but more
extensive fencing elsewhere is still under discussion.
"No country that is proud of itself should build walls," Fox told
reporters when he last met Bush one year ago, and a month after the
House began talks on approving a fence. "[I]t doesn't make any sense."
Since then, as the debate has continued in the US over what kind
of fence is needed and where, Fox has called the proposal everything
from "stupid" and "discriminatory" to "shameful," and heralded illegal
migrants as "heroes" who will in any event find ways to cross the border.
Last year 1.2 million illegal immigrants were apprehended by the
border patrol as they tried to cross into the US, and it is frequently
estimated that close to the same number make it. Last year was also a
record year for deaths. In 2005, 473 would-be immigrants died en
route, many victims of thirst, heatstroke, exhaustion, or exposure
when they tried to cross less carefully guarded desert areas.
Currently, 11.5 million to 12 million illegal immigrants live in
the US, according to estimates in a report released this month by the
Pew Hispanic Center. Of these, an estimated 6.2 million, or 56
percent, are Mexicans. Another 2.5 million, or 22 percent of the
total, come from other Latin American countries.
The money these people send home is vital to the region's economy.
In 2005, legal and illegal immigrants from Latin America and the
Caribbean sent home $45 billion in remittances, double the total of a
decade earlier, according to the Social Outlook 2005 report by the
Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), a UN
regional body. Mexican workers alone sent home a record $17 billion.
So while Fox might be the regional leader most concerned with, and
vocal about, US immigration policy - he is far from the only one.
Spearheaded by Mexico, and galvanized by the fence proposals,
foreign ministers and other top officials from Belize, Guatemala, El
Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama as well as
Colombia, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic met March 15 in
Guatemala and vowed to coordinate their lobbying efforts against the
US bill if it should pass in the Senate.
Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein, in turn, called the bill
"an affront to Latin America by a government that claims to be our
partner, but which apparently only wants our money and our
merchandise, and that sees our people as an epidemic."
This was the third time representatives from these 11 countries
have gathered to discuss the US bill. In early January, they convened
in Mexico City and put out a joint statement saying that "incomplete
measures that only involve the stiffening of immigration policies do
not represent an integral solution for dealing with the challenges
posed by the phenomenon of migration."
In February, the group met again in Cartegena, Colombia, and
devised a plan to identify key US senators to reach out to on the
issue. Both the Mexican parliament and the five- nation Central
American Parliament have condemned the proposed fence and are calling
on the Senate to throw it out.
"Our message is that we are your neighbors, we are your friends.
This is a common challenge," Carlos de Icaza, Mexico's ambassador to
the US, told reporters in Washington last week. "And we are part of
the solution, not only part of the problem."
Ms. Harman is Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA
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