U.S. officials are reaching out to immigrant business owners in their effort to win congressional approval of a free-trade agreement with five Central American countries and the Dominican Republic.
Officials from the State Department and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative met yesterday with about 60 Hispanic business owners and community leaders to encourage them to express support for the trade deal, known as CAFTA-DR. During the meeting, the attendees were told that their lobbying could be pivotal in getting Congress to pass the agreement.
Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick, shown in Brussels Monday, said Congress should hear personal accounts from immigrant businesspeople.
(Thierry Roge -- Reuters)
"For members of Congress, a personal story makes a difference," said Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick, who encouraged immigrant entrepreneurs and community leaders to share with congressional leaders their firsthand accounts of the need for economic expansion in their home countries.
Zoellick told participants in the meeting to emphasize that "choice, rather than desperation" should have inspired their decisions to immigrate to the United States. He encouraged them to talk about how the trade agreement could create more jobs in their home countries.
If passed, CAFTA-DR would lower tariffs on products traded between Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the United States. The agreement is opposed by labor unions, concerned about labor practices and low wages in Central America, and the U.S. sugar industry, because the deal would increase the amount of sugar that could be imported to the United States.
Congressional committees are preparing to take up CAFTA-DR. Hearings by the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee are scheduled in the next two weeks.
"It is vital that you have a voice in this debate. With your support, I am sure this effort will prevail," said Christopher A. Padilla, assistant U.S trade representative for intergovernmental affairs.
The meeting reflected the Hispanic community's increased economic and political clout. With a population of 39 million, Hispanics are now the nation's largest minority group, according to 2003 Census figures.
Several Latino organizations oppose CAFTA-DR, including the Los Angeles-based Central American Resource Center, which works for immigrants' rights, and the District-based League of United Latin American Citizens, one of the nation's oldest Hispanic advocacy groups. The groups object to the trade pact because they say it would put Central American businesses and farmers at a competitive disadvantage.
"We believe Central America will be flooded with U.S. products," said Marvin H. Andrade, director of community programs for the Central American Resource Center. "There is no competition for Central American businesses against U.S. products."
The audience at yesterday's meeting was more receptive. Most of the participants, who came from around the country, were invited at the behest of their home governments, which support CAFTA-DR. The legislatures of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have approved the pact. The Dominican Republic was added to the agreement last year.
Throughout the three-hour meeting -- conducted in Spanish and English with simultaneous interpretation available -- speakers played up the cultural link between the immigrants and their home countries.
"This is important that we should work on together as brothers and sisters," Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) told the group in Spanish.
The attendees said they support the trade pact because they think it would give Central American products greater access to U.S. markets, enabling them to do more business with their home countries.
U.S. officials often preached to the converted during the morning meeting. The most frequent comment from attendees was: "Tell us what can we do to help."
Salvadoran immigrant Abigail Rivera, whose family owns restaurants in Silver Spring, Gaithersburg and Alexandria, said she has begun chatting with friends about CAFTA-DR and would write letters of support.
"This can benefit us. Each day we want to improve and make things better in our countries," Rivera said.