Immigration, Latin America and the Next U.S. President

On September 9th, seven of the eight Democratic primary candidates appeared on top Spanish language TV station Univision in the United States’ first ever Presidential debate broadcast entirely in Spanish. For the first time, Democratic candidates paid significant attention to U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and were asked questions about immigrant rights instead of just about "illegal" immigration.

Candidates were required to answer in English and their responses were simultaneously translated into Spanish for viewers. The debate’s two moderators, Univision anchors Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas, asked questions in Spanish that were simultaneously translated into English for the candidates. Beyond right-wing harangue that Democrats were "pandering" to Latinos, the language guidelines and translation encountered many problems. On the technical level, reporters in the debate press room couldn’t hear the debate in either English or Spanish for the first 30 minutes, and bilingual viewers, this author included, were simultaneously bombarded by two intelligible languages, giving one a sense of linguistic vertigo. On the political level, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, the two Spanish speaking candidates, were peeved that they were prohibited from answering questions in Spanish, with Richardson, the first major Latino candidate for President, accusing Univision of supporting an "English only" policy.

Republicans were scheduled to debate on Univision this September 16th. Unfortunately, all of the candidates save John McCain claimed "scheduling conflicts." As Miami Herald columnist Beth Reinhard quipped, "At least Rudy Giuliani’s sock drawer will be organized, and Mitt Romney’s hair will be clean." It should be noted that the one person absent from the Democratic debate, Delaware Senator Joe Biden, had just gotten back from Iraq. There is an exodus of Latinos from the Republican Party, 40% of whom voted for Bush in 2004. Now, as Republicans catch the share of the blame Congress’s failure to legalize 12 million undocumented immigrants, only abound 25% of Latinos indicate that they will cast their vote for a Republican candidate in 2008.

It wasn’t only Univision describing the debate as historic. That Democratic candidates felt compelled to attend a debate in Spanish indisputably represents the growing political power of the Latino community. Christian Ramirez, staff person at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), says that there wouldn’t have been a Univision debate "without millions of people in the streets" for immigrant rights over the last two years. Also important, notes UCLA Professor Chicano Studies Professor Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda, is the fact that Latinos are key swing voters in a number of key swing states.

But for many conservatives, the idea of candidates participating in Spanish language debate was tantamount to treason. Prominent conservative blogger Michelle Malkin decried the debate as a "self-congratulatory panderfest." On CNN, far right Republican presidential candidate Rep. Tom Tancredo (the anti-immigrant candidate par excellence, with demonstrated connections to white supremacist organizations) declined to participate, mocked the Spanish language and said "if you are going to vote in the country, you should be a citizen–that’s the law. Some people vote even if they’re not. But to be a citizen of this country you’re supposed to be able to know English." Other right-wing commentators saw the debate as clear evidence of the so-called "reconquista movement’s" growing power.

But as liberal columnist Marc Cooper noted, the forum was indeed set up to be a "panderfest" of sorts, with moderators lobbing questions in the vein of "what would each one of you consider to be the greatest contribution of Hispanics in the United States?" Moderators "took no time or effort to ply whatever authentic differences exist among candidates nor to challenge any of them on the contradictions and waffles that mark their respective records and campaign promises." It was hard not to cringe as candidates listed their Latino staffers ("my best friend is a Latino!" worthy of a website like and gushed about what they liked most about the ‘culturally rich, hard working and family oriented’ minority.

So far, the Democratic debates have served up a redundant and vague stream of assertions of "strength" (New York Senator Hillary Clinton) and "hope" (Illinois Senator Barack Obama). Anything novel mentioned by one of the so-called "second or third tier" candidates like single-payer universal health care or an immediate withdrawal from Iraq has been mocked, ridiculed and ignored in a myopic corporate media. The Univision debate and the subsequent media coverage doesn’t depart from this trend. The corporate media is more interested in the play by play in the battle between the hope and strength mongers.

It is important to note, however, that according to polls, Iraq, not immigration, is the top concern for most Latino voters.  As Ramirez at AFSC puts it, "Like blacks and whites, Latinos want health care, an end to the war and fully funded education. There are far more things uniting than dividing our communities." All of the candidates called for some sort of end to the U.S. presence in Iraq, with Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel, Richardson and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards arguing most forcefully for a complete withdrawal. Gravel was the first candidate to bring up Iraq, citing the case of the Enrique Soriano in his opening statement. Enrique, an undocumented immigrant, is facing deportation three years after his son Armando was killed fighting for the U.S. Army in Iraq.

According to a January 2007 poll by the Pew Hispanic Center, two-thirds of Latinos–compared with about 50% of U.S. citizens as a whole–want U.S. troops withdrawn from Iraq as soon as possible and only one-fourth think invading Iraq was a good idea in the first place.

In addition, the debate taking place in Miami brings up important questions about the heterogeneity of the Latino community. Ramirez pointed out that factors like class and national origin play a big role in Latinos’ political positions. A Spanish language debate held in Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago or Los Angeles would each have a different political significance. A poor, undocumented, indigenous speaker of Mixteco from the Mexican state of Oaxaca living in Oregon, a wealthy right-wing Cuban-American in residing in Miami and a former FMLN guerrilla in Washinton, D.C. all come to politics with a distinct set of experiences, interests and desires. As Lisa Haugaard, Executive Director the Latin American Working Group (LAWG) pointed out, even the Cuban immigrant community is increasingly split along political and generational lines on issues like the embargo and the travel ban to Cuba. UCLA Chicano Studies Professor Octavio Pescador says that the Univision crowd is slightly more to the left than the Latino community in general.

Imperial Strategies in Latin America

The war in Iraq is also important in relation to U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. As scholar and commentator James Petras notes, the U.S.-made disaster in Iraq, among other factors like the growth of China "have weakened U.S. military capacity for intervention in Latin America in support of a military coup, or, even less, a direct military intervention." With economic control failing and the possibility for military control bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. has encountered a historic obstacle in maintaining its hegemony of the Western Hemisphere.

Since the early 1990s, the means of securing hegemony in Latin America have shifted from a strategy of military intervention and covert operations to the support of neoliberal economic packages and trade deals. Throughout the 1990s, neoliberal economic policies held unrivaled sway from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego. The dramatically increased levels of poverty along with the slashed budgets for schools, healthcare and other social programs quickly took a toll, and combined with the marginalization of labor unions and other social movement groups from political power, a huge backlash against neoliberalism erupted at the dawn of the 21st Century. The majority of governments throughout Latin America, propelled by militant labor, indigenous and social movements, tipped by varying degrees to the left. Historically, when a "soft power" strategy fails to keep Latin American countries in line, the U.S. quickly turns to "hard power": coup d’état and military intervention. How does the U.S. respond when hard power just isn’t feasible?

Petras argues that the weakened position of the U.S. empire vis-à-vis Latin America has produced a fissure in the Bush administration over how to deal with the region. Whereas the old time militarists push for an energetic policy of subverting "unfriendly" governments, State Department officials led by Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon advocate a "market-driven" approach based on pushing neoliberal trade agreements. Petras argues that a compromise is emerging between the two camps, resulting in a "two-track policy," combining support for "subversive opposition" in countries like Bolivia and Venezuela while simultaneously opening new diplomatic tracks, combined with a renewed effort to push neoliberal trade agreements and economic packages with moderate neoliberal governments in Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Argentina.

While imperialist policies have continuity between Democratic and Republican administrations, Latin Americans show a keen interest in who wins office in the U.S. According to Haugaard at LAWG, most Latin Americans show a clear preference for Democrats. Latin American newspapers are also dedicating almost as much time as U.S. papers to the election.  I had a personal experience in Venezuela that matches up with LAWG’s analysis. Sitting in a Caracas community radio station full of self-proclaimed socialists in late November 2006, everyone wanted to know whether I was pleased or ecstatic that Democrats had taken control of Congress.

Although Sunday’s debate made it clear that leading Democratic candidates lean towards the State Department "soft power" methods of hemispheric domination, no one should discount the possibility of a President Clinton giving the green light to unsavory covert ops. Hinojosa-Ojeda argues that a Clinton presidency would, overall, see an increased an alignment with Latin America’s so-called "center-left" governments: Chile, Brazil, Uruguay and possibly Argentina.

"Is Hugo Chavez a dictator?"

The debate’s hot button (and perversely worded) questions on Latin America were "Is Hugo Chavez a dictator?" and ‘What’s the role of the U.S. in Cuba’s transition to democracy?’

None of the candidates came out and labeled Chavez a dictator but most, with the exceptions of Kucinich and Gravel, strongly implied that they weren’t big supporters. Most candidates felt it necessary to put anything good that they said in the context of bashing Chavez or Castro. In calling for increased economic aid to Latin America, Dodd said that "We shouldn’t…be losing public relations battles to Hugo Chavez." Edwards suggested that if we "make hope and opportunity available to millions of people in Latin America, it would pull the rug out from under a man like Hugo Chavez." No candidate mentioned anything particular they disliked about Chavez’s policies. According to Haugaard, "outdoing Chavez is not the correct reason to provide more economic aid to Latin America."

The establishment Democratic Party position on Latin America is one of advocating a less bellicose form of imperialism. Criticizing the administration for "neglecting" Latin America has been in vogue at least since Bush’s March trip to the region. The Democrats’ message on Latin America changes the story from a narrative of historical oppression and resistance to a paternalistic question of attention and neglect. As I noted in an earlier article, the discourse of "neglect" willfully ignores to mention a long-history of U.S. backed coups and military dictatorships. As Haugaard notes, "Saying that the U.S. should pay more attention to Latin America is a bad idea. Historically, the U.S. ‘paying more attention’ to Latin America has been a nightmare for Latin Americans."

But fault lines within the establishment are evident. In the July CNN/Youtube debate, Obama came under intense fire from Clinton for his assertion that he would talk to Castro and Chavez "without preconditions."

As commentator Paul Street has noted, however, Obama made it perfectly clear in his bestselling campaign book The Audacity of Hope he opposed any break with U.S. hegemony in Latin AmericaHe states that "left-leaning populists" like "Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez" are wrong in thinking they "should resist America’s efforts to expand its hegemony…follow their own path to development." There are, of course, exceptions to this rhetoric on the party’s left. I was impressed by Gravel’s commitment to accuracy when he alone pointed out that the U.S. was behind the 2002 coup against the Venezuelan president.

Support for an end to the Cuba embargo has been growing on both sides of the aisle over the past few years. Numerous candidates–namely Dodd and Richardson–called for an end to the embargo against Cuba. Ending the embargo, of course, was framed as the ‘smart way to topple Castro.’ Hillary Clinton skipped any comments on the embargo, sticking with vagaries like "Cuban people deserve freedom and democracy." Importantly, Cuban-Americans are increasingly supportive ending the travel ban and the embargo against the island nation.

Richardson made the curious claim of supporting "populist movements in Brazil, in Argentina, in Chile." There was no follow up to this statement and I have no idea what he was referring to. I’ll take a guess that he meant the general turn towards electoral democracy and away from military dictatorships in the three countries, rather than support for grassroots movements like Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST), Argentina’s piqueteros or Chile’s militant trade unionists. Richardson’s statement may have also been inspired by the new aura of populism surrounding politicians like Edwards and Virginia Senator Jim Webb.

Illegals, Guest Workers or Human Beings? Immigration on the Campaign Trail

The conflict over immigrant rights has exposed deep contradictions in both the Democratic and Republican parties. On the Republican side of the aisle, a conflict rages within the fragile coalition of poor but socially conservative whites and wealthy business elites. The right-wing anti-immigrant movement is almost exclusively white, often working class and has strong ties to white supremacist organizations (see this NACLA report). The business elites of the Republican party on one hand require the exploitation of undocumented immigrant labor to maintain profit margins. On the other hand, they are desperate to maintain unity on the right. Bush sided with the business elites, his most favored constituency, and backed the Senate "compromise" legislation of partial legalization, guest-worker programs and heavy border militarization and enforcement. The social right-wing, in contrast, championed the kick-every-illegal-out-now-end-of-discussion HR 4437, the so-called "Sensenbrenner bill," from the get go. Congressional Democrats were split between those with some degree of accountability to labor unions and grassroots organizations and those completely sold off to big business, with a few joining the far right. Labor and immigrant advocates embraced Sheila Jackson-Lee’s HR 2092 called for legalization and no guest worker program or significantly increased enforcement. Most business Democrats went with the Senate bill, and a few Blue Dog Democrats supported Sensenbrenner.

Leading Democratic candidates supported the now dead Senate immigration bill, known in its various permutations as "comprehensive immigration reform," the "compromise bill,"  "Kennedy-McCain" or "Hagel-Martinez." In fact, it should be called the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition (EWIC) bill. EWIC is a massively powerful industry group representing the business sectors benefiting most from the exploitation of undocumented workers’ labor. The all-star list of industry groups behind the EWIC–hotels, construction, meat packing, fast food and of course the US Chamber of Commerce — give EWIC serious muscle, which more often than not gets flexed behind closed doors. While a few unions and inside-the-beltway immigrant rights groups got behind this legislation, the Senate bill was opposed by the overwhelming majority of grassroots groups and unions. While Kucinich, Gravel and to a very limited extent Richardson called for legalization and denounced border militarization, the leading candidates all embraced the "comprehensive" option.

The most illuminating moment in the entire debate was moderator Maria Elena Salinas’ question on border militarization: "None of the 9/11 terrorists entered the U.S. through the Mexican border. Why build a wall there in the name of national security on the Mexican border and not on the border with Canada? Senators…I would like to mention that Senator Obama, Clinton and Dodd approved and voted in favor of the wall." The senators each dodged the question, neglecting to address the comparative security needs of the Mexican and Canadian border. All three instead answered by emphasizing the obvious: the "comprehensive" in "comprehensive immigration reform" means border militarization and increased ICE enforcement.

Senator Dodd: "Obviously, any debate about immigration has to include security here. The American people feel strongly about it."

Senator Clinton:  "I have championed comprehensive immigration reform, and it includes starting with securing our borders."

Senator Obama: "That is going to involve some elements of border security because we’ve got to make our borders more secure.  We can’t just have hundreds of thousands of people coming into the country without knowing who they are."

As these comments make clear, we as a movement shouldn’t be asking for "comprehensive immigration reform," regardless of what the polls say–we demand immigrant rights. Bill Richardson came through with the big laugh line of the evening, with his argument against a border wall: "if you’re going to build a 12-foot wall, you know what’s going to happen? A lot of 13-foot ladders." Ramirez of AFSC quickly pointed out, however, that Richardson was also the first Southwestern governor to send national guard troops to the border, precipitating an increase in border militarization.

Candidates were then asked whether or not they would stop the Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids if elected president. This could have been the tough lets-get-some-serious-accountability-from-these-politicians question of the night. Unfortunately, the question was only posed to two candidates who were already on record opposing the raids: Bill Richardson and Mike Gravel. I’m sure that viewers would have liked to hear candidates’ positions who haven’t taken a stand on the raids, and who happen to be masters of the political art of triangulation–Clinton, Obama and Edwards. Even more perplexing was the Univision Online article stating that "stopping the raids against undocumented immigrants" was one of the "Democratic candidates’ principal commitments to the Hispanic community." 

Gravel and Kucinich were the only candidates to mention the fact that NAFTA and other neoliberal economic policies, in undermining Mexican campesino farmers and small manufacturers, force migration. Other candidates issued vague generalities about being a good neighbor to Mexico.

John Edwards, however, emphasized the relation between immigrant and worker rights. "It is enormously important that we have comprehensive immigration reform so that those who in fact are working 10 hours a day in 105-degree heat have the same sort of worker rights that other Americans have." Edwards mentioned the story of a Latino poultry worker in Canton, Mississippi who was injured on the job and frightened out of seeking workers compensation by his boss, who brought up his immigration status.

Perplexingly, most candidates seemed proud to champion employer sanctions and the accompanying tactics (social security no match letters, etc.), which are just anti-immigrant enforcement by other means. Employer sanctions aren’t really getting tough on employers. They just force bosses to get even tougher on immigrant workers.

Immigration and the Politics of Language

The politics of language play a large role in conflict over immigrant rights. The phrase "illegal immigrant" has moved from the far right into the mainstream of our political language. While immigrants who cross the U.S. border without authorization are committing a civil offense and not technically a crime, immigrant people can be labeled "illegal" whereas a murderer is considered a legal human being.

On his website, Barack Obama hedges his bet and switches between "undocumented immigrant" and "illegal immigrant." While you’ll be hard pressed to find the word "immigration" on Clinton’s website, the few times the issue is discussed Hillary uses NEITHER term (feel free to read something central to Hillary’s general campaign strategy here, if you’d like). Edwards’ website doesn’t really highlight immigration either, but seemed most likely to use "undocumented" while using "illegal" to exclusively to refer to "illegal trafficking."

Remarkably, the word "illegal" was only used three times to refer to an immigrant during the debate, one instance being Kucinich declaring "there are no illegal human beings." The other instances were  Richardson ("Those that knowingly hire illegal workers should be punished.") and Clinton (When the House passed a bill, they tried to criminalize anyone who helped an illegal immigrant," referring to the Sensenbrenner bill."

In contrast, the word "undocumented" was used twelve times. While the candidates’ motivation for this linguistic flip flop is suspect, it does represent a promising show of Latino power in beginning to redefine the language of the debate.

In Miami, Democrats offered viewers a few novelties on immigration and Latin America. Leading candidates’ remarks imply we’ll see some changes on immigration and U.S. foreign policy in Latin America–just nothing to get very excited about.