The San Diego Union-Tribune

Sept. 8, 2001

Fox's immigration agenda touches nerves in Congress


WASHINGTON -- Shortly after his election as Mexico's president, Vicente Fox suggested to his staff that he visit Washington to discuss immigration reform and other touchy issues.

Don't bother, the staff said. "Too messy," a top aide recalled.

As Fox wrapped up his state visit yesterday, it seemed unclear whether the staff assessment in the summer of 2000 was too pessimistic.

After a series of mostly upbeat meetings with President Bush and congressional officials this week, Fox left Washington convinced the White House would pursue a multipronged immigration reform agenda, according to his senior aides.

But U.S. and Mexican officials acknowledged yesterday that prospects remain uncertain for the most ambitious of the Fox proposals also embraced by President Bush: plans for a temporary guest-worker program and potential legalization for several million undocumented Mexicans living in the United States.

Mexican officials got a taste of the protracted political battle that lies ahead on Capitol Hill during a private meeting with congressional officials this week, said Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, Fox's national security adviser.

Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, a powerful conservative, was among a group of lawmakers who vigorously repeated their opposition to any kind of legalization plan, which they construe as an amnesty.

Still, Fox is optimistic both administrations can reach an agreement on an immigration reform plan by the end of the year, Aguilar Zinser said.

Fox raised the possibility of the early timetable as the summit opened Wednesday, surprising Bush by saying "we can and must" reach an agreement within a few months. Some U.S. officials expressed skepticism about Fox's forecast.

Yesterday, Aguilar Zinser clarified the president's remarks, saying Fox referred to a timetable in which both administrations could reach an agreement. That would occur before Congress even begins to debate the issue.

"President Bush has made it clear, privately and publicly, he's committed to this," Aguilar Zinser said.

Fox and Bush are working to reach agreement on a multipronged immigration reform plan that would:

Evaluate the status of 3 million undocumented Mexicans living in the United States who may be eligible, through work status or family, to be legalized or "regularized" -- earn green cards for permanent legal status.

Prepare a temporary guest-worker program that would allow some Mexicans to come "back and forth legally."

Consider lifting quotas on eligible Mexicans to earn visas to reside in the United States.

Ensure border safety.

Target areas in Mexico for economic development.

"We look at this package as something over time, not a one-shot deal," Aguilar Zinser said.

Fox became Mexican president last year by defeating the candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which had a stranglehold on the presidency for 71 years.

Fox bonded quickly with Bush, a former Texas governor. This week, the two chief executives greeted each other as friends many times.

"Our whole mission is we want Mexicans to stay in Mexico," Aguilar Zinser said. "But we also recognize that we have a migration phenomenon. We don't want Mexicans living in the United States without documents."

On Thursday, Bush said he is considering the legalization plan, according to immigration advocates.

"President Bush has now embraced the idea of legalization for undocumented workers; clearly, that's the most controversial issue," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. "And no doubt Fox's statements about cooperation -- enforcing the border and other incentives --
encouraged Bush to step up."

But Sharry and other supporters of the legalization plan acknowledge that the immigration package, in parts, or in entirety, face strong resistance in Congress.

"George W. Bush may be the leading advocate in his own party," Sharry said.

Already, there were hints of political trouble as the Senate Judiciary Committee opened hearings yesterday on immigration reform.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, a key supporter of the legalization effort, told the committee he wants to broaden the proposal beyond Mexicans, to millions of undocumented people from other nations.

"Limiting a legalization program to one nationality will only further divide us as a people," Sweeney said.

That, however, could be construed as a blanket amnesty -- a step that Bush personally opposes and that almost certainly would inflame Republican conservatives.

Sweeney and others also criticized the proposed guest-worker program as flawed.

"You have your work cut out for you," economist Stephen Moore, a supporter of legalization, told lawmakers.