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A conversation with Hillary Clinton

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September 13, 2007

Sen. Hillary Clinton sees the human factor as topmost in confronting hemispheric trade and immigration issues.

In an exclusive interview with this correspondent the morning after she participated in the Univision-sponsored Democratic Party presidential primary debate here, Clinton took the opportunity to expand on these two issues of major interest to 49 million U.S. Hispanics and nearly 400 million more in some two dozen countries south of our border.

Clinton had shared the spotlight the previous night with six other aspirants for the Democratic nomination in front of a national television audience of 4.6 million.

Frontrunner Clinton expressed to me the event’s stand-out moment as “the fact it occurred” at all. It was the first time in U.S. history that the major candidates appeared before a largely Latino national audience to debate the issues.

A similar event for the Republican candidates is in question. Only Sen. John McCain has accepted the invitation so far.

In particular, Clinton emphasized to me the need for a hemispheric engagement that reaches all people and communities. Trade issues, for instance, ought to concern how workers and their families gain, both abroad and in the United States. She observed that while many of the wealthy in some Latin American regions have benefited, trade reforms have yet to reach the less privileged with significant impact. Obviously, not enough to stem illegal immigration into the United States.

Asked whether this country could pay serious attention to the interests of its Latin American neighbors, given the Iraq war and its other worldwide commitments, Clinton responded that the need for hemispheric cooperation doesn’t go away.

Dialogues “do not go up or down,” she elaborated; they should endure. Clinton made reference to her travels in Latin America and familiarity with the region’s many issues. In particular, she noted regional economies, energy, the environment, health, the poor and democracy as essential areas to engage Latin countries.

I brought up our relationship with Mexico President Felipe Calderon, who has led an aggressive police and military confrontation with narco-traffickers. He has made recent statements calling on the United States to do more in curbing demand for illegal drugs.

Expressing sympathy with Calderon’s efforts, Clinton agreed the United States should do more by diverting drug-users to treatment and increasing its efforts to push down the crime rate.

She added the caveat that Mexico itself has to restore public order and take its own measures to curb narco-corruption among police and others. The two nations should partner in developing a comprehensive approach, she said.

Official ties linking Canada, Mexico and the United States — the three North American Free Trade countries — would work better if their ongoing “standing committees” worked “smarter” and their dialogues more promptly addressed issues and concerns as they arose.

“All good ideas,” she emphasized, “do not start in the U.S.”

She said the way to get smart about trade is to apply a strict standard and measure NAFTA by how it improves the lives of working people. Reforms that do not reach the middle class and poor exacerbate immigration problems. Clinton has consistently favored comprehensive immigration reform.

In particular, she told me, this nation’s changing demographic profile, with a Latino population approaching 50 million, is a reflection on how “America is constantly reinventing itself,” adding the oft-repeated refrain, “We are a nation of immigrants.”

She addressed the recent wave of demagoguery and immigrant-bashing that has created a public dissonance, blaming much of the current fault-finding on the fact that many in this country are susceptible to demagoguery “because Americans don’t see themselves getting ahead.”

Even though the nation has realized real benefits from immigration, those who don’t see themselves as touched directly by the benefits don’t believe it. Demagoguery, she said, “unfortunately falls on receptive ears.”

Clinton made a similar observation the night before in front of the television audience. By the next morning, she was animated about her statement and the interplay between domestic and transnational perspectives.

At a stand-out moment, as one of seven candidates vying for attention, she referred to demagoguery polluting the waters of the immigration debate.

But now it seems she wanted her message to go the next step. Open minds, she suggested, see the connection between what happens abroad as a link to what happens here. And the judgment about good or bad policy is how it impacts people far away as well as nearby.

(Jose de la Isla, author of “The Rise of Hispanic Political Power, writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail joseisla3(at)yahoo.com. )