Five Central American presidents are visiting Washington to press Congress on a key economic trade pact and to discuss ways to address regional security problems, including illegal immigration into the United States. In exclusive interviews with VOA Thursday, the presidents of El Salvador and Honduras expressed hope that new economic opportunities can help resolve concerns over illegal immigration.
The purpose of this week's trip by the five Central American presidents has been to urge U-S Congress to approve the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), a sweeping bill that promises to boost trade for all the nations involved.
Supporters of the deal say it would also help cut the flow of illegal immigrants from Latin America, who are seeking jobs in the United States. Millions of illegal immigrants hold U.S. jobs, and thousands more seek to enter each year, raising concerns in the United States over the economy and the security.
Speaking to VOA, Honduran President Ricardo Maduro says he understands the worries over illegal immigration. And he believes the CAFTA trade deal is a major step toward creating new jobs and reducing poverty in Central America - the reason many Central Americans seek to illegally enter the United States.
He says the Honduran government doesn't believe CAFTA will resolve immigration problems right away. But it's the only way right now to begin reducing it in coming years, otherwise, he says, the problem will never go away.
Salvadoran President Antonio Saca also spoke with VOA, following talks Thursday with President Bush and the leaders of Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.
Mr. Saca says he supports new economic measures to help stem illegal immigration, but he's also asking the United States to aid immigrants already living here.
The president told VOA that he supports a new bill in the U.S. Congress that would grant legal status to millions of illegal Latin American immigrants in the country.
He says many illegal immigrants have U.S.-born children or married U.S. citizens. They've been living, working and paying taxes in the United States for some time, so he says these people deserve an opportunity.
The bill introduced Thursday in Congress would allow tax-paying illegal immigrants to seek work permits and apply for permanent residence, after paying a set of fines.
The bill is sponsored by Republican and Democratic lawmakers, but it is expected to face tough challenges from those who reject such measures as rewarding immigrants for breaking the law.