WASHINGTON, D.C. – Promoting regional security, boosting trade and resolving the long-standing debate over immigration will be the main themes of U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to El Salvador next month – his first ever to Central America.
“We are developing a really intense agenda for President Obama’s visit to El Salvador,” said Hugo Martínez, El Salvador’s foreign minister, during a Feb. 4 press conference in the Salvadoran Embassy in Washington, D.C. “Regional security will be a main topic on the agenda, following up on the conversations the Obama administration has been having with President [Mauricio] Funes since he came to Washington in March 2010.”
Obama’s three-country tour of Latin America, which will also include stops in Brazil and Chile, will take place in March, although no exact dates have been announced yet.
Planning for the visit to San Salvador involves a number of high-level meetings between El Salvador’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the U.S. State Department, as well as with the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the National Security Council.
“I remember very well last September when President Obama, in his speech to the United Nations, talked about countries helping themselves and El Salvador was one of the first countries he singled out for praise,” Martínez said. “We understand that the president’s visit to our country has a lot to do with democracy and political stability in El Salvador, and efforts that President Funes has made towards national unity. Various [Obama] administration officials have praised the example set by El Salvador.”
The trip is not without its controversies. Argentina’s Foreign Minister Héctor Ti-merman last week criticized Obama for bypassing his country while choosing to visit El Salvador, home to the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA).
Last week, an Argentine newspaper reported that agents of the Buenos Aires metropolitan police had traveled to El Salvador to take anti-terrorism courses at ILEA, which Timerman linked to the controversial School of the Americas, where military dictatorships including those of Argentina, Chile and other countries trained their forces in the 1970s and 1980s.
El Salvador has not addressed Timerman’s comments. But Martínez did note his country’s commitment to security issues, noting that El Salvador will be hosting the Organization of American States’ annual General Assembly in June, which will focus on the issues of citizen security in the Americas.
“Criminals don’t respect frontiers, which is why this has to be a regional effort,” Martínez said. “As part of our fight against crime, we are making investments that will permit us to offer our young people an alternative. The lure of easy money seduces our youth, and we need to give them alternatives.”
Martínez said that El Salvador, with the collaboration of the United States and other Central American countries, is organizing an international conference directly after the OAS General Assembly in San Salvador to focus on regional security. The meeting will address issues such as finance, technology and cooperation in aviation and maritime patrols to intercept drug traffickers.
“These are not things we resolve from one day to the next,” he said. “It’s a process. And in this process, all of us have to be pro-active.”
Martínez said Funes will also talk to Obama about finding a permanent solution for the estimated 217,000 Salvadorans living in the United States under Temporary Protected Status (TPS), while emphasizing the need for comprehensive immigration reform that addresses the concerns of those facing possible deportation.
Martínez said his government wants a dialogue with the Department of Homeland Security and also to establish agreements with state and local authorities in the United States. The groundwork for such an arrangement was laid out during a recent meeting between Salvadoran officials and U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano.
“We are suggesting that if, for example, you must deport someone with children, that person should be given the opportunity to leave the country in an orderly way, rather than being removed or taken from his or her workplace immediately,” he said.
“There must be alternative mechanisms for locating these people, especially when there are children, pregnant women or elderly adults in their lives,” Martínez stressed. “We are also looking to the administration to differentiate between people who have criminal records and those who are being deported simply for not having the proper documents.”
In fiscal years 2009 and 2010, according to Napolitano, ICE removed a record 779,000 illegal immigrants from the United States, of which 195,000 were convicted criminals.
“We understand that this is a very complicated issue domestically in the United States,” said Martínez. “El Salvador is seeking ways that bring development to rural communities as a way to stop immigration, and to help Salvadorans already living in the United States.
“My message is that we have to work together, shoulder to shoulder, for the good of all Salvadorans everywhere,” he stressed.