Immigration reform would also benefit Latin America: Obama

US President Barack Obama and El Salvador President Mauricio Funes speak during a joint press conference at the National Palace in San Salvador, El Salvador, March 22

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador: President Barack Obama vowed closer cooperation with the Central American nations where US policies on crime, immigration and other issues have outsize influence on populations that depend heavily on their giant neighbor to the north and impact U.S. society in turn.

Speaking in El Salvador, the final stop on his three-country Latin American tour and the only one in Central America, Obama promised work on increasing trade and economic growth, fighting drug trafficking and creating opportunities so that people can find opportunity in their home countries and “don’t feel like they have to head north to provide for their families.”

“The United States will do our part” in combating the increasing scourge of drug trafficking, the president said, standing next to El Salvador’s president Mauricio Funes, who welcomed Obama’s attention to the oft-overlooked region. Obama announced a new $200 million partnership with El Salvador to combat drug wars that have led to a spike in murders here and in other Central American countries.

Yet Obama’s five-day visit to Latin America has been overshadowed from the start by the war he’s running in faraway Libya, and just before the news conference started the White House said Obama would be cutting his visit short to return earlier to the U.S.

And despite Libya’s shadow, Obama sought to make clear that El Salvador is a critical partner on immigration and narcotics wars, issues of increasing concern to the United States.

Among the issues he and Funes addressed was the rising crime south of the U.S. border. El Salvador has seen murder rates rise amid an influx of drugs and displaced traffickers from crackdowns in Colombia and Mexico. Obama said a new partnership to combat narco-trafficking could focus on strengthening courts and civil society groups in order to keep young people from turning to drugs and crime.

Obama said he was confident that Funes would show “great leadership” in using the money properly.

El Salvador also has one of Central America’s highest rates of emigration, especially to the United States. About 2.8 million Salvadoran immigrants living in the United States sent home $3.5 billion last year, so laws that crack down on immigrants can significantly affect the Salvadoran economy.

Obama can offer little to fix El Salvador’s devastating crime and fragile economy. Fiscal pressures have limited the amount of money the U.S. government can provide as part of its drug-fighting efforts, and congressional politics have made it difficult to restart talks about overhauling the nation’s immigration laws.

Nonetheless Obama recommitted himself to the effort in response to a question from a local reporter. He said Republicans who now exert greater control in Washington were more reluctant than in the past to engage in comprehensive reform, but “My hope is that they begin to recognize over the next year that we can’t solve this problem without taking a broad comprehensive approach.”

Obama said immigration reform in the U.S. would also benefit Latin America, and would “ensure that relations between neighbors, and trade and economic relations between neighbors is orderly, more secure.”

Obama, along with wife Michelle Obama and their two daughters, had earlier visited Brazil and Chile.

In a broad-ranging speech in Chile that spelled out his policy in Latin America, Obama called on the region’s rising economies to take more responsibility and play a larger role both in the region and around the globe.

He also described US initiatives in Latin America to help curb the proliferation of drugs. Congress approved $1.8 billion for the so-called Merida Initiative to fight drugs in Mexico. After complaints that Central America was shortchanged, Congress created a separate Central America Regional Security Initiative with a total of $248 million so far. Central American leaders say that has not been enough.

Funes, who despite being elected with support from former Marxist guerillas has charted a moderate course in El Salvador, agrees with Obama that all countries in the region need to contribute to a solution.

-AP

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