San Diego Union-Tribune

November 17, 2001

U.S.-Mexico talks, with guest-worker focus, to resume


WASHINGTON -- The United States and Mexico are set to resume
talks next week on an effort by President Bush and Mexico President Vicente Fox to create a temporary guest-worker program and possibly legalize millions of undocumented Mexicans.

But the world has changed dramatically since they last talked.

When Bush and Fox touted immigration reform during a summit here in the days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, political obstacles already were significant. Now, experts foresee little chance of an immediate breakthrough with this country so edgy over terrorism and haphazard border control.

"Politically, we're not ready to focus attention on this and that's OK," said Deborah Meyers, a policy analyst for the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. "But both sides are ready to talk only two months after the attacks, and that means it's a priority for both."

Terrorism also has rewritten the agenda since Bush and Fox toasted each other at the White House only a week before the Sept. 11 attacks. Security is expected to be a far-bigger concern for the United States in the talks.

Yesterday, neither U.S. nor Mexican officials would discuss next week's meetings. Midlevel negotiators are expected to begin the discussions Tuesday.

On Monday, Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, Fox's national security adviser, is scheduled to meet with Tom Ridge, director of the White House Office of Homeland Security. They are expected to  discuss ways the two countries might more fully cooperate on border security and intelligence matters.

"These are themes that weren't on the table before, the role of Mexico in homeland security," said Armand Peschard Sverdrup,  director of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies' Mexico project.

"I think the guest-worker and the regularization process -- things that Mexico wanted to push -- have been complicated somewhat, but they are on the table," said Sverdrup. "But the U.S. wants to implement its homeland security strategy."

After the turbulent two-month hiatus since Bush and Fox met in September, both administrations insist they want to build some kind of momentum for immigration reform.

"It's not dead," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said of the guest-worker and other proposals. "It has not moved at the pace the president had hoped it would move and I think that's understandable."

Yesterday, two top Democratic lawmakers -- Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt -- traveled to Mexico City to assure Fox that they are committed to immigration reform.

"There are those who want to use the terrorist attacks in the United States as a justification for closing our doors to immigrants," according to a column signed by the two Democratic leaders that appeared in Mexican newspapers

"Some even say we should remove those immigrants already in the United States."

"The killers of Sept. 11 probably would have approved of such a plan ... but we shouldn't give them that victory," they wrote. "Justice and security are not mutually opposed. We should create an immigration system that is both just, and favors families and businesses."

The Bush administration and the Democratic leadership are sending a "strong signal" they want to continue the immigration discussions, said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, a Washington-based immigration advocacy group.

During the Bush and Fox summit, the Mexican president surprised administration officials by setting a goal of reaching a guest-worker agreement by the end of the year. U.S. officials doubted that timetable even before the Sept. 11 attacks. Since then, the economy has deteriorated, causing more doubt inside and outside the administration about a new temporary guest-worker plan.

Revelations that many of the terrorist jetliner hijackers were in this country on expired temporary visas also have prompted some lawmakers on Capitol Hill to seek tougher rather than looser immigration laws.

Fox recently renewed his call for an agreement.

"The Mexicans want to believe it's very much alive and the White House probably would like to believe the issue is very much alive," said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank whose research generally bolsters arguments for reducing immigration.

"But the opposition to (immigration reform) has hardened since Sept. 11," Krikorian said.