San Diego Union-Tribune

August 10, 2001

Quick action on migrant plan unlikely, Powell says


WASHINGTON -- After meeting with top Mexican officials yesterday,
Secretary of State Colin Powell signaled that it may be months before the Bush administration unveils a plan to allow legal residency to some of the millions of people living in the United States unlawfully.

Despite a media and political blitz since sketches of the proposals were disclosed several weeks ago, U.S. and Mexican officials acknowledged it is unlikely a workable immigration reform plan will be ready when President Bush hosts Mexican President Vicente Fox in Washington next month.

In a tuneup before Fox's visit, Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft met with Mexico Foreign Minister Jorge Castaņeda and Interior Secretary Santiago Creel at the U.S. State Department.

They acknowledged progress on sweeping proposals involving legalization and expanded guest-worker programs. But they also sought to lower expectations of fast action.

"We got into some specifics with respect to a temporary worker program that we will be pursing in greater detail in the months ahead," Powell said after the meeting. "We're in no hurry. We have to do this right. We have to do this in a careful way, a way that will be seen as fair and equitable to both nations, by the people of both nations."

Like Powell, Castaņeda sounded an optimistic note that some form of immigration reform agreement would be reached. He talked about reaching "a good agreement in whatever time frame is necessary, and that takes into account the needs of the economy in the United States and the rights that Mexicans need."

But the tone of Powell's remarks disappointed Frank Sharry, head of the National Immigration Forum and a proponent of the plan.

Sharry said Powell's remarks "signaled that the administration is slowing down . . . that the attention paid to these issues in recent weeks has made them more cautious or more scared."

Some administration officials privately have expressed concerns that Mexican officials are pushing for broad reforms that may be politically impossible in the United States.

"Let me do everything I can to downplay your expectations," State
Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters. "I don't think I'm in a position to predict exactly where we'll be in September."

The Bush administration was caught off guard when word that it was
considering a legalization program was leaked recently. After a sharp negative reaction from some conservative Republicans, Bush said that he opposes any blanket amnesty. Boucher stressed the same point again yesterday.

At the heart of the talks, which occurred over lunch, was a plan prepared by Powell and Ashcroft -- being evaluated by Bush -- that could give up to 3 million Mexicans living illegally in the United States a chance to gain permanent legal residence through a guest-worker program.

Mexico's Fox and Castaņeda have pushed for legalizing undocumented

Although both administrations have been discussing an overhaul of
immigration policies for six months, the top U.S. and Mexican officials yesterday offered no timetable for achieving their ambitious goals, nor did they mention politically charged phrases such as "amnesty" or "legalization," which have been bandied about in recent weeks.

The discussions yesterday focused on what Powell termed an "orderly, humane, family-friendly system" -- echoing what Bush and Fox sought when they first met in Mexico in February, according to the secretary of state.

Powell said the administration wants to come up with a plan that would respect the "enormously valuable role" that Mexican migrants contribute to this country without placing U.S. workers at a competitive disadvantage.

He also insisted the "immigration system must be fair and the most important obligation is to those who follow the rules and abide by the law. The only path must be the legal path."

When asked about the apparent inconsistencies of Powell's praise for undocumented migrants and obligations to follow the law, Boucher said later: "It's a good question and the balance between those factors is what we're going to have to achieve in whatever we come up with."

Yesterday's meeting of U.S. and Mexican officials raised the hopes of
guest-worker supporters and generated skepticism among opponents.

"This is a breakthrough," said Angelica Salas, California spokeswoman for the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support, a coalition of immigration advocacy and labor groups.

"We have high-level officials actually discussing humane policies where several years ago all anyone talked about was stopping people at the border. And they are going to take their time and do this thoughtfully."

But Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that seeks to limit immigration, believes otherwise.

"After all these months of meetings they are still talking about principles, and starting to get to the details," he said. "Do they know what they're doing?"