ATLANTA — Gov. Sonny Perdue and more than 300 business leaders from across Latin America urged businesses to take the lead in fostering good relations between the United States and the nations whose immigrant workers are at the top of Washington’s agenda this week.

“My philosophy is that good business is the best antidote to bad politics,” Perdue told the crowd at the 2006 Sumaq Summit in Atlanta, organized by a group of business schools in Latin America and Spain.

Perdue waved aside concerns that foreign businesses might be put off by Georgia’s new immigration law that he signed last month. It is considered one of the strictest in the country.

“In no way it implies we’re not hospitable,” Perdue said of the law. “I just expect business people can understand that much better than the rhetoric of politics.”

Many leaders attending the two-day conference seemed just as eager to forge trade relationships and leave the problem of immigration to diplomats.

“At the level of business, it’s not an issue,” said Fernando Bolt, a vice president at Chile’s state-owned Codelco, the world’s largest copper corporation.

Many other leaders, however, said they would favor U.S. immigration reform at the federal level, giving immigrants a better chance to work legally.

“In the United States and other countries like England, I walk into a grocery store and all workers are immigrants,” said Hugo Bethlem, who heads a division of Brazil’s biggest grocery chain, Companhia Brasileira de Distribuicao. “I don’t know what they can do without them.”

Eduardo Ferrero, Peru’s ambassador to the U.S., said making and expanding permanent free trade agreements helps combat poverty in Latin America, thus stemming immigration at the source.

“Free trade contributes to work, so that’s how to face structurally the migration issue,” Ferrero said.

Still, Peruvian immigrants contribute greatly to the U.S. economy and should enjoy the same rights and opportunities of all Americans, he said.

Peru is one of the Latin American nations with which U.S. negotiators have signed bilateral trade agreements since 2003, when attempts to secure a hemispheric-wide free trade zone fell apart. The effort has yielded significant profits for American exporters but stirred the opposition of countries like Venezuela, which announced it would withdraw from a regional trade bloc.

Overall, government, academic and business leaders urged the Western hemisphere to band together, especially to face the challenge of rising giants like China and India.

“Over the last decade, the U.S. has diverted attention to China and the Asian Southeast, as well as to conflicts in the Middle East, and Latin America feels that the historic region of the Americas was forgotten,” said Santiago Iniguez de Onzono, one of the summit organizers and dean of the Instituto de Empresa, a leading business school in Madrid, Spain. “(Proposed) immigration laws have made the feeling of neglect more acute.”


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