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Latin America seen through narrow immigration lens

Negative Public View of Immigration and Trade Colors Attitudes

As the U.S. presidential candidates head into Super Tuesday primaries, decidedly negative views of American adults toward immigration are not only playing a role in the campaigns, but also risk damaging the U.S. relations with Latin America that could take years to repair.

An overwhelming majority of American adults say a candidate's stance on immigration is important to their voting decisions, a new Zogby Interactive poll shows. More than 76 % of the online poll respondents said a candidate's position on immigration is a "very important" or "somewhat important" factor in their decision on who to vote for in the presidential elections of 2008.

When asked to choose from among possible policies the United States should adopt as part of its foreign policy with Latin America, the largest percentage of poll respondents, 36%, identified "job creation to stem migration..." as the most important policy.

The Zogby Interactive poll included 7,106 adults nationwide and was conducted January 18 - 21, 2008. It carries a margin of error of +/- 1.2 percentage points. This survey suggests that the United States public sees Latin America increasingly through an immigration lens, and a very negative one at that, said Peter Hakim, the President of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank that collaborated with Zogby on the poll.

The fact is that most Americans think U.S. foreign policy in the hemisphere should prioritize stopping immigration, he added. U.S. debates over immigration, tinged with anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic sentiments, have sounded mean-spirited and disparaging of Latin America, Hakim said, and this sours prospects for improving U.S. policy and relations with the region in the years ahead.

Remittances Beggaring the U.S.?

The poll also found U.S. public disapproval over remittances, the money sent from migrant workers in the U.S. to their families back home. An ample majority (61%) believe remittances by immigrants to family members living in Latin America take a significant amount of money away from the United States economy. That figure is particularly surprising, considering that over 20% of the public said in the survey they had either sent remittances or know someone who had.

While immigration and remittances are on the minds of the American public, the poll suggests that Latin America is not a major concern to Americans beyond that. Only 7% of American adults believed the Latin American region is most important to the United States, ranking behind the Middle East (43%), East Asia (20%) and Europe/Russia (12%). Latin America was well ahead of South Asia, Africa and South Pacific/Australia, which each rated only 1% or less, however.

American attitudes toward trade also continue to be either conflicted or largely negative. With the North American Free Trade agreement in place for over a decade, for example, fully 47% in this poll said it was bad thing for the United States.

After the Election

The dominance of negative views toward migration have stalled immigration policy reform for now, said Hakim. But he suggests that after the elections, and when the economy improves, there may be more room for policy initiatives.

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