- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 27, 2004

Sen. John Kerry said yesterday that he wants to build a “Community of the Americas” that would foster democracy and economic development in the Western Hemisphere and would mean a different immigration policy in the United States.

The presumptive Democratic candidate for president said he will reject the free-trade agreements President Bush is negotiating with nations in the region and will insist on new deals that other nations meet higher labor and environmental standards — something routinely believed to benefit American workers because other nations’ businesses often cannot meet the standards.

Mr. Kerry, though, said it is a matter of showing “respect” to those other nations.

“We need to lift up the living standards and working conditions for all working men and women, not just in the United States, but in the world,” he said.

Mr. Kerry addressed the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials at the Hyatt Regency, four blocks from the Capitol in Washington. Both Democrats and Republicans say a large portion of the Hispanic vote is up for grabs, given that the voting bloc is quickly realizing its electoral power and is much less tied to partisan labels than some other minority groups are.

The Massachusetts senator criticized Mr. Bush for his attitude toward Latin America, saying he has “ignored a wide range of ills — including political and financial crises, runaway unemployment and drug trafficking.”

He proposed a “North American security perimeter,” in which the United States would work with neighbors to coordinate customs, immigration policies and law enforcement.

“We can better protect the region from terrorist threats, but we can also respect the individuality and the rights of those coming into our country,” he said.

On immigration, an issue that usually ranks high among Hispanic advocacy groups’ interests, Mr. Kerry said he takes the issue seriously because it is personal to him.

“I married one,” he said of his second wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, who was born to a Portuguese family in Mozambique and came to the United States to work for the United Nations in the 1960s. Mr. Kerry married her in 1995, four years after her first husband, former Sen. John Heinz, heir to the Heinz ketchup fortune, died in a plane crash.

Mr. Kerry said she is an example of the immigrant experience.

“As much as she loves her roots and loves her heritage, I have met few people who love America as much as she does,” he said.

Without giving specifics, the candidate said he will change U.S. immigration policy.

“I don’t think that our economy or our security are served by what we’re doing today. It doesn’t reflect our values as a country built by immigrants,” he said. “Good people are living here, they’re working hard and paying taxes, and they ought to have a path to equal citizenship in the American community, and they will when I am president.”

Mr. Kerry also mentioned the hundreds of immigrants “seeking just a better life” who have died in the deserts of the Southwest as they tried to cross illegally into the United States over the past few years.

Other parts of Mr. Kerry’s 40-minute speech were a repackaged version of his standard campaign speech, into which he inserted figures about Hispanic unemployment or, at times, just the label “Latino.”

“More and more, Latinos who find themselves at the lower end of the economic ladder find themselves working 24-7. Some of them are working two jobs, three jobs, and they’re still not getting ahead,” he said, resculpting one of his stock lines.

Hispanic Republicans in Congress said they believe Mr. Kerry’s promises are empty, based on how little he has done for Hispanics in his 20 years in the Senate.

“The Kerry campaign’s outreach efforts depend almost solely on outside groups to build its Latino grass-roots operation, showcasing Kerry’s inability to connect with Hispanic voters,” said five Hispanic Republicans in a signed statement issued by the Bush campaign. “Latinos should not trust or expect Kerry to change one iota if elected president.”

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