Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Hillary’s ‘uh-oh’ moment in Ecuador

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton isn’t known for gaffes, but when she announced from foreign shores that the U.S. government will sue a state for helping to enforce federal laws, it was kind of a biggie.  The state is Arizona, of course. And at issue is the law it passed in April allowing police to ...

RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images
RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton isn't known for gaffes, but when she announced from foreign shores that the U.S. government will sue a state for helping to enforce federal laws, it was kind of a biggie. 

The state is Arizona, of course. And at issue is the law it passed in April allowing police to query the immigration status of individuals following a lawful stop, detention, or arrest. As amended, it prohibits consideration of race, color, or national origin and specifies that those suspected of unlawful entry be turned over to federal authorities to determine their status. The bill was a response to Washington's paralysis in enacting meaningful migration reform.

In its response, the administration opted for a political brawl over the more difficult course of pursuing national reforms. On May 19, President Barack Obama stood next to visiting President Felipe Calderón of Mexico when he called for the law to be struck down. Soon after, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement chief John Morton said his agency would not necessarily process individuals referred by Arizona authorities.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton isn’t known for gaffes, but when she announced from foreign shores that the U.S. government will sue a state for helping to enforce federal laws, it was kind of a biggie. 

The state is Arizona, of course. And at issue is the law it passed in April allowing police to query the immigration status of individuals following a lawful stop, detention, or arrest. As amended, it prohibits consideration of race, color, or national origin and specifies that those suspected of unlawful entry be turned over to federal authorities to determine their status. The bill was a response to Washington’s paralysis in enacting meaningful migration reform.

In its response, the administration opted for a political brawl over the more difficult course of pursuing national reforms. On May 19, President Barack Obama stood next to visiting President Felipe Calderón of Mexico when he called for the law to be struck down. Soon after, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement chief John Morton said his agency would not necessarily process individuals referred by Arizona authorities.

Hillary’s pronouncement came during the course of a TV interview in Quito, Ecuador following her appearance at the Organization of American States General Assembly in Lima, Peru. On June 8, she told interviewer Andrea Bernal that President Obama feels the federal government should be determining immigration policy, and that the Justice Department will bring a lawsuit against the act. Sounds reasonable enough, you say. 

Yet as gaffes go, this is a three-fer. First, while most American citizens know it is the federal government’s responsibility to determine and enforce immigration policy, no public servant should fan the flames of internal controversy from a foreign pulpit. If Arizonans are going to get sued by the feds, best they learn about it from officials closer to home. 

Second, the Clinton got out ahead of the issue owner-the attorney general. In response, the Justice Department said it was still reviewing the law. Then administration sources scrambled to tell reporters that a decision had in fact been made, but the department needed time to build its case. The facts remain cloudy. 

Third, there could have been a teachable moment here. Bad living conditions and porous borders are problems in various parts of the Americas. Just as desperate Ecuadorans seeking employment have found their way illegally to the United States through Central America and Mexico, Ecuador has felt the impact of Colombians fleeing drug violence and guerrilla bands from their native land.

Clinton could have discussed how the United States and its neighbors might benefit from multilateral cooperation to reduce illegal migrant flows, crack down on attendant trafficking, and attack the root problems that make people want to leave home, such as weak rule of law and rigged economies that make life difficult for job-supplying small businesses. 

For now, it’s hard to tell where Obama’s migration policy will end up. It may be that he is developing a reasoned course. But you would never know by remarks that seemed to be mostly about U.S. politics, another agency’s authorities, and little about the broader issues in which our neighbors play a major part. 

Stephen Johnson is a senior advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Republican Institute. He was the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere affairs from 2007 to 2009.

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