In Guatemala, Bush pushes free trade
Encounters some criticism on deportations
GUATEMALA CITY -- President Bush's message of good will in Latin American hit a wall in Guatemala yesterday, as his defense of US immigration law met with disapproval from his hosts.
Bush's meetings with President Oscar Berger, a conservative leader who has become a strong US 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 Congress, still deeply divided over the issue, by August.
But he gave no ground in the face of questions over efforts to deport illegal workers, such as a raid in Massachusetts last week. Federal authorities detained 361 employees -- most from Guatemala and El Salvador -- of a leather goods factory for possible deportation. Those detained could not prove they were working in the United States legally. The raid left dozens of young children without their primary caretakers.
"The United States will enforce our law," Bush said. "It's against the law to hire somebody who's in our country illegally."
Berger replied, "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 the immigration issue as a problem not just for migrants and their home countries, but Americans as well.
And Bush tried to dispel suspicions that application of the law in the United States can be cruel and discriminatory.
"Just so you now, 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 on which the leaders found common ground was the battle against drug trafficking.
Guatemala wants technical assistance such as helicopters and radar equipment for the fight. Bush praised Berger's commitment and said he wants the United States to work with Mexico and other Central American countries on a regional partnership to halt drug trafficking and gangs.
He plans to discuss it today with President Felipe Calderón of Mexico 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 differences.
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 palace.
Bush'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.
Helping to load lettuce headed for the global market with US help -- and touring an American military center that provides basic medical care and physician training -- Bush emphasized US largesse in this part of the world.
During his helicopter visit to hill towns, Bush showcased the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which he just barely pushed through a then-Republican Congress in 2005. The Democratic takeover of Congress has left the prospects for further free-trade agreements dubious.