Immigration policies face disapproval in Guatemala

U.S. President George W. Bush, right, talks with a local woman vendor during his visit to the town plaza of Santa Cruz Balanya, Guatemala, Monday, March 12, 2007. Guatemala President Oscar Berger is at center. The Associated Press

AP

U.S. President George W. Bush, right, talks with a local woman vendor during his visit to the town plaza of Santa Cruz Balanya, Guatemala, Monday, March 12, 2007. Guatemala President Oscar Berger is at center. The Associated Press

By The Associated Press

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala – President Bush’s message of goodwill in Latin America ran into a wall in Guatemala on Monday, as his defense of U.S. immigration law met with disapproval from his hosts.

Bush’s meetings here with President Oscar Berger, a conservative leader who has become a strong U.S. ally, were dominated by trade and the difficult issue of immigration policy.

Bush pleased Guatemalans by promising to push hard, and quickly, for changes that would include a temporary-worker program for illegal workers in the United States. He said he thinks it is possible to wrest legislation out of the U.S. Congress, still deeply divided over the issue, by August.

But he gave no ground in the face of questions over deportations of illegal workers, such as a raid in Massachusetts last week. Federal authorities detained over 300 employees of a leather goods maker – most from Guatemala and El Salvador – for possible deportation as illegal aliens. The raid left dozens of young children stranded at schools and with baby sitters.

“The United States will enforce our law,” Bush said. “It’s against the law to hire somebody who’s in our country illegally.”

Responded Berger: “The Guatemalan people would have preferred a more clear and positive response – no more deportations.”

Berger did say he “was very pleased” that Bush sees it as a problem not just for migrants and their home countries, but Americans as well.

And Bush tried to dispel suspicions, high here, that application of the law in the United States can be cruel and discriminatory.

“Just so you know, when we enforce the law we do so in a fair and rational way,” he said. “People are welcome, but under the law.”

One issue where the leaders found common ground was the battle against drug trafficking.

Guatemala wants technical assistance, such as helicopters, radar and other equipment, for the fight. Bush praised Berger’s commitment, and said he wants the U.S. to work with Mexico and other Central American countries on a regional partnership to halt drug trafficking and gangs.

He plans to discuss it Tuesday with Mexican President Felipe Calderon on his last stop of a five-nation tour.

Bush was treated to a welcoming ceremony in the courtyard of Guatemala’s National Palace, the site of the signing of 1996 peace accords that ended a 36-year civil war in which the United States played a sometimes-checkered role.

Bush placed a white rose in the bronze memorial, then he and Berger celebrated relations that are strong despite the past and present differences that still top the minds of many here.

About 500 people marched toward the centrally located national palace in Guatemala City to protest Bush’s visit, some carrying signs with anti-Bush messages and others burning an effigy of the president.

The demonstration was mostly peaceful, but more than 5,000 police and soldiers surrounded the national palace to prevent it from getting too close to the president.

The president’s stop here was focused on touting free trade as a salve to Latin America’s woes. He spoke out against poverty from dusty mountain villages to counter critics’ portrayal of America as the devil to the north.