State of the Union: No Room in the Speech for Latin America

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New York Times Columnist James Reston once famously said, “The U.S. will do anything for Latin America, except read about it.” Or, evidently, speak about it. In President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, January 25, he spoke little of the international community, and even less about our southern neighbors. Despite the almost complete lack of direct attention, many of the topics that the president addressed yesterday are likely to gravely affect Latin America. Washington’s policies on higher education, immigration, and free trade will almost certainly reverberate beyond U.S. borders.

During his address, President Obama stressed the importance of reinvigorating America’s floundering education system, and challenged teachers and state policy-makers alike to make vital improvements to the educational infrastructure. Obama mentioned the hundreds of thousands of international students that enroll in American higher education institutions, and expressed his disappointment that the best and brightest will eventually return to their home countries— as if it was the United States that were the primary victim of a heartless brain drain.

For Latin America, this trend toward repatriation of human talent is a positive development—the educated return to aid their home countries and carry with them new skills to put to work for their countries’ welfare. If the U.S. government were to try to entice these well-trained young minds to stay in the U.S., it would only increase the costly brain drain that Latin America already suffers from, thereby further stunting creative and economic growth in the region.

Nevertheless, Obama’s stance on immigration was firm, if not hopeful. He asserted that those who have grown up in America, and pledge no other allegiances, should have the same access to education and economic prosperity as the rest of the population, stating, “[i]t doesn’t make sense that we educate them and then send them away.” Obama pledged that he would address the millions of undocumented workers—the majority of whom are Latin American—yet he did not outline how he would go about definitively tackling the issue. He did, however, emphasize that the United States needs to cease expelling those who could “further enrich the nation.” Ironically, there are foreign students here who have been requested to sign papers in which they pledge to return home once they finish their schooling. Though Obama did not reference the DREAM Act explicitly in the State of the Union Address—probably for political reasons—his comments did reference his commitment to the bill, providing a glimmer of hope for Latinos hoping to stay in the United States.

The reorganization of government agencies that President Obama also called for could eventually affect the relationships that the U.S. has with many of its international allies and partners. Given that there are currently as many as 12 agencies that regulate exports, the consolidation of the offices will likely have an impact on already established agreements and procedures. Though the president mentioned more aggressively pursuing free trade agreements with countries such as Panama and Colombia, he also emphasized that he was advocating such agreements strictly for the promotion of American jobs. For those skeptical about the so-called “mutual benefit” of free trade agreements, this might only further suspicions.

It is unfortunate that President Obama, who is so welcomed by the international community, did not give some of his supporters due justice in his speech. Even though it is understood that the purpose of the State of the Union speech is to address the issues most pressing to American citizens, the nations who over the years have helped this country to achieve its goals should be acknowledged as well. Perpetuating the idea that “America is not just a place on a map, but the light to the world,” could further isolate America. This type of behavior ultimately promotes bloated self-importance rather than a willingness to reach out to forge a lasting relationship with other regional powers. If America really is to be a nation that can live up to the claim that “there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on earth,” then the U.S. needs to start by setting an example, not of elitism, but of humility. Good fences make good neighbors? We challenge Americans to come up with a better slogan than that.