Arizona Law And Lack Of Immigration Reform Straining U.S. Relations With Latin America

Yesterday, USA Today reported that Arizona’s immigration law — SB-1070 — may be straining U.S. relations with Latin America. The article notes that ten Latin American countries signed on to a brief opposing SB-1070 in the Department of Justice lawsuit challenging the law. The piece then goes on to quote several noted Latin America experts who express concern over the law’s foreign relations implications:

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.” […]

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. […] “If you put (the Arizona law) on top of all that, it’s the latest in a pretty long series,” Alden said.

Alden makes a compelling point. Americans weren’t the only ones hoping for change in 2008. In testimony before Congress delivered earlier this year, Peter Hakim of the Inter-American Dialogue noted that “no event since John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 was more welcomed in Latin America or held out greater expectations for improving the region’s ties with the U.S. than Barack Obama’s electoral victory in November 2008.” Nonetheless, Hakim also noted, “U.S. policy remains largely unchanged and it is hard to identify a single Latin American country that has a better relation with Washington today than it did during President Bush’s tenure.”


Hakim explicitly pointed to the absence of immigration reform. A similar criticism was put forth by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) when George W. Bush was still president in 2008. In its report, “U.S.-Latin America Relations: A New Direction for a New Reality,” CFR wrote that “the failures of U.S. immigration policy have become a foreign policy problem.” CFR noted that though the U.S. tends to think of immigration as a domestic policy issue, it inherently has a “profound impact” on Latin American nations. “The tenor of recent immigration debates and the failure to pass meaningful immigration reform have hurt U.S. standing in the region, as many Latin American nations (including those without large populations in the United States) perceive current laws as discriminatory and unfair toward their citizens,” explained the report, two years before Arizona passed the harshest immigration law in the country. The CFR Task Force recommended enacting immigration reform to meet U.S. security, economic, and foreign policy interests.

The Task Force also pointed out that while the U.S. lags in its response to 21st century migration patterns, Latin American governments are ahead of the curve. “Latin American governments are pushing forward concrete policies to address the accelerating movement of people within the region as well as capitalize on migration to the United States,” wrote CFR. “U.S. policies lag far behind those of Latin American governments in adapting to the realities of increased human mobility.”