Calderon and the immigration debate

By ABBY SEWELL, MEDILL NEWS SERVICE, Written for UPI  |  May 25, 2010 at 6:23 AM
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WASHINGTON, May 25 (UPI) -- Mexican President Felipe Calderon drew both praise and criticism from lawmakers for his forceful statements on immigration during his 2-day visit to Washington last week but immigration reform advocates said they don't necessarily expect his trip to shape the debate in the U.S. Congress.

Calderon made it clear that he sees immigration as a shared problem. He spoke of the need to create jobs at home to keep Mexicans from crossing the border in search of work. At the same time, he called the current U.S. immigration system "broken and inefficient."

"The time has come for the United States and Mexico to work together on this issue," Calderon told Congress last Thursday.

The Reform Immigration for America campaign, a coalition of organizations pushing for immigration reform, issued a statement praising Calderon's statements and calling on lawmakers, particularly Republicans, to take it as an opportunity to move the debate forward.

In practical terms, however, Reform Immigration for America spokesman Martine Apodaca said he doesn't expect Calderon's words to influence the stance of U.S. lawmakers.

"I don't know that an exhortation from a foreign leader is necessarily going to move Congress. What it can do is spur the conversations we need to be having," he said.

The partisan divide was evident in Congress members' reactions to Calderon's speech. Democrats gave standing ovations at several points while Republicans largely remained seated.

Clarissa Martinez de Castro, director of immigration and national campaigns for the National Council of La Raza, which is part of the reform coalition, said it was important for lawmakers to hear that the Mexican president sees immigration as a mutual issue. However, she stopped short of saying that Calderon's visit might push immigration reform legislation forward in the United States.

"Ultimately, that is something that our president and our Congress have to deliver to the American people," she said.

Immigration reform has been a hot topic of debate, both nationally and in Washington, especially since Arizona passed a state law last month that would crack down on illegal immigration and require local police to enforce immigration laws. But the chances of seeing legislation to overhaul the national immigration system introduced this year are dwindling as the mid-term election season approaches.

Marc Rosenblum, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, said Calderon's statements reinforced a growing perception that the immigration system is in crisis and highlighted the fact that it is a regional issue as well as an internal U.S. dilemma. Still, Rosenblum said it is unlikely that Calderon's visit will have a substantial impact on the debate.

"I guess I'm reluctant to say that (the visit) will influence the content or the timing of the debate but it should," he said.

On the other hand, Luis Vera, national counsel for the League of United Latin American Citizens, said the words spoken by Calderon and by U.S. President Barack Obama during the visit were just empty speechifying. The real impact of the visit, he said, came from a second-grader who put Michelle Obama on the spot when the U.S. first lady and Mexican first lady Margarita Zavala visited a Maryland elementary school.

In an incident that grabbed national media attention, the girl told Michelle Obama that "my mom doesn't have any papers."

Vera said he doesn't expect to see immigration reform before November but he expects the second-grader's story to have a lasting impact.

"What Calderon said and what Obama said, that's rhetoric. We hear it all the time," he said. "The most powerful statement came from that little girl."

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