By Julian Pecquet - 02/07/13 10:00 AM EST
Foreign governments are working hard to shape the debate on immigration reform as momentum for a comprehensive bill builds in Congress.
While the issue routinely comes up in talks between foreign leaders and the executive branch, embassy officials are ramping up their outreach to Congress and the White House in order to take advantage of the best hope for reform in years.
For many countries, the issue goes beyond humanitarian concern: Remittances from foreign nationals living in the U.S. provide a significant boost to the economies of their home countries.
Remittances to El Salvador, one of the countries most interested in reform, accounted for almost 17.4 percent of the country’s economy in 2010, according to RemittancesGateway.org.
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), a leader on immigration reform, said he’d had “conversations over time with a number” of ambassadors about immigration reform. He said he didn’t see any reason not to listen to anyone with “good ideas.”
“They all are extremely diplomatic in how they go about talking about this,” Becerra said. “But it’s no hidden secret that it’s important for a lot of these ambassadors and their governments to see comprehensive immigration reform pass.”
Mexico’s new ambassador to the U.S., Eduardo Medina-Mora, has had “a number of meetings with the administration” where the issue of immigration has come up since he took office last month, said a Mexican official familiar with the process.
He is expected to meet with lawmakers shortly as legislation begins to take form.
“Probably like no other country, we are a player in this particular issue,” the source said. “If we have the need to say something, we will do so, but with the utmost respect to the domestic politics.”
An estimated 7 million Mexicans in the country illegally stand to benefit from reform.
While Mexico has adopted a wait-and-see attitude, other countries have specific changes they hope to see in the law. However, they’re happy to do so discreetly — letting American groups take the lead.
That’s the case with El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, three countries whose citizens have long been eligible for a temporary immigration status first offered in the wake of the civil wars of the 1980s.
The countries hope that immigration reform will include a path to permanent legal status, and eventually citizenship, for the estimated 300,000 or so Central Americans who are in the United States under the Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, which is up for renewal periodically.
The Salvadoran embassy has requested updated data from U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services, said Maryland state Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D), a Salvadoran-American immigration activist.
The embassy reached out to other embassies to do the same in order to get a better sense of how many Central Americans currently benefit from the program. El Salvador is believed to have about 210,000 of its citizens currently in the U.S. under the program.
“We just need to be able to say, ‘These are the people we want to be first in line because they’ve already been here,’ ” Gutierrez said. “First of all, they have to pass background checks every 18 months, they have to pay taxes, they’ve been here with a legal status.
“They’ve stepped up. They’ve followed the law. They’ve been paying. And yet they’re stuck.”
Gutierrez said she’s met recently with Cecilia Muñoz, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, and Felicia Escobar, the senior policy adviser for immigration at the White House Domestic Policy Council.
Gutierrez said money is a principal driver of the foreign governments’ interest in immigration reform.
“Of course the reason embassies would be interested is these are the people who have been working and sending remittances home,” she said. “And because they have a legal work permit and because they’re paying taxes and they have driver’s licenses, they are a lot more stable — and have access to better jobs — than the undocumented.”
Total remittances to El Salvador in 2010 were $3.6 billion in 2010.
For Mexico, the figure was $22.7 billion, or 2.1 percent of GDP.
TPS reform is not included in the principles of the White House immigration reform proposal, Gutierrez said.
However, Becerra and Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) both told The Hill that they want it to be included in comprehensive legislation.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Salvadoran Ambassador Francisco Altschul publicly weighed in with an emailed statement to The Hill.
“Although defining immigration reform is solely the responsibility of the U.S. political system, we share and support the idea,” he said.
Salvadorans with TPS status “should be considered prominently in this immigration reform because they have been living legally in this country for more than 10 years, create jobs, generate wealth, and do not pose any threat to public safety,” Altschul said.
Altschul estimated that Salvadoran TPS beneficiaries “have paid more than $602 million in registration fees since 2001, and that they pay approximately $0.8 billion in taxes every year.”
Other countries are acting to preserve their historic bonds with the United States.
Ireland, in particular, has pressed for years for a path for legalization for the 50,000 Irish who are in the country illegally.
Ambassador Michael Collins brought the issue to the attention of Rep. Gutiérrez during a meeting Tuesday on Capitol Hill.
“Congressman Gutiérrez is a great friend of Ireland,” the embassy told The Hill. “Ambassador Collins was delighted to meet with him [Tuesday] for a discussion about U.S. immigration issues, on which the congressman is a key figure.”
And Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore told the Irish Parliament on Tuesday that he will “hold a series of telephone discussions with key U.S. senators over the coming days” about the issue.
Immigration is also expected to be high on the agenda when Irish leaders make their annual visit to the United States for St. Patrick’s Day, on March 17, an embassy source said. Ireland also hopes to be eligible for a greater number of immigrant visas allowing the Irish to stay and work in the country legally.