San Diego Union-Tribune

September 1, 2001

No immigration deal on the table for Fox visit to U.S.



WASHINGTON -- Amid hope and hype, President Bush hosts Mexico's President Vicente Fox for a three-day visit next week that promises to showcase the two leaders' shared vision for overhauling immigration policies, cooperating on trade and fighting corruption.

But Bush yesterday publicly acknowledged a reality that his aides have been forecasting for weeks: There will be no agreement on immigration reform in time for the visit.

"Immigration is one that is a complex issue," Bush told several news organizations yesterday. "We made progress on principles. President Fox knows that the issue will require more than just the administration's involvement; it requires a willing Congress to address the issue."

Indeed, the presidents' efforts to achieve their goals on this and other difficult issues are already being undermined by a complicated and fragile political process in both countries.

Fox is scheduled to fly into Washington late Tuesday evening. His White House visit Wednesday will mark his fourth meeting with Bush, who early on signaled Mexico's importance by making his first presidential foreign journey a
February stopover at Fox's ranch in San Cristobal.

Now as host, Bush once again promises to play up his friendship with the Mexican president. Drawing from their mutual concerns for the border, both leaders are taking unprecedented steps to address long-standing bilateral
issues, such as illegal immigration and drug-trafficking.

"There is something there about the relationship, not just show," said Andrew Wainer of The Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a Claremont think tank that focuses on Latin American issues.

"Fox is seen as more friendly to the U.S. than was the previous administration, and Bush also has the image of having a special affinity for Mexico," Wainer said. "With the election of Fox, it has changed the relationship in some very clear and powerful ways."

Fox, a former executive at Coca-Cola and a former governor of the Mexican state of Guanajato, was elected president in July 2000, ending 71 years of rule by Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Since coming into power, Fox has tried to create more bridges between Mexico's neighboring countries. In Bush -- fellow rancher, businessman, conservative and political neophyte on the world stage -- he found a compadre.

Fox has been outspoken about wanting to stem the flow of illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border, reduce fatalities of migrants crossing the border and overhaul a notoriously corrupt Mexican law enforcement system.
Early on, Fox also successfully prompted Bush to adhere to a North American Free Trade Agreement order to open U.S. highways nationwide to Mexican trucks.

For the most part, Bush has agreed with the man he calls his "good friend."

Months ago -- hoping to make a splash with the upcoming state visit -- both administrations began laying the groundwork for a new guest-worker program in the United States that could lead to the legalization of some of the 3 million undocumented Mexicans residing here.

Anticipating Fox's visit, Bush also wanted to have in place lawmakers' approval to open all the country's highways to Mexican truck traffic by Jan. 1, 2001. The policy would allow truckers to haul goods beyond an existing 20-mile commercial zone along the border.

But Congress has jeopardized Bush's open-border trucking plans. In reaction, Bush led a parade of Republicans who accused trucking opponents of discriminating against "our friends" in Mexico.

"We are happy with the way the administration is handling this but outraged at the Congress," said a Washington-based Mexican diplomat, who declined to be identified.

Sharp resistance in Congress to immigration reforms and the Mexican trucking proposal has slowed the pace of change sought by both leaders.

"Each president will have to build coalitions issue by issue, and that will be difficult because of the nature of democratic politics," said Riordan Roett, director of the Western Hemisphere Program at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. "But the commitment by both presidents to do so is very strong."

But even the most ardent supporters of both presidents say they don't expect many concrete agreements to be reached during next week's meetings.

As Fox and Bush discuss reworking immigration policies, "a series of principles will be announced by the two presidents," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said yesterday. "The issue of immigration is very important to President Bush, and also very complicated."

Administration officials want a temporary guest-worker program for undocumented migrants to meet the labor demands of the nation's service and agricultural industries.

Yet the White House doesn't want to frustrate the many people waiting to immigrate to this country legally, Fleischer said.

Other complex topics also will be on the table, including cross-border trucking, trade, energy, water rights and development along the border.

"I think, obviously, the fact that both these guys know each other is very positive for us," said Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union.

The SEIU, which has a large immigrant membership, supports the Bush-Fox plans for legalization of migrant workers.

"It makes it clear that whatever they say to each other will be looked at," Medina said.

Both governments insist the friendship between the two presidents is real. But just as real are the politics on both sides of the border. Bush is courting the burgeoning Hispanic population in the United States, while Fox is keeping
tabs on the $6 billion annually sent to Mexico from expatriates in the United States.

A sense of Tex-Mex bilateral politics will be in the air next week. On Wednesday morning, Bush plans to greet Fox at the White House, where they will review a military honor guard. The two presidents are scheduled to talk privately in the Oval Office, and then Cabinet members of both countries
will meet in an unusual joint session.

That night Bush will host his first state dinner for Fox.

The next day, Fox will address a joint session of Congress, and then the two presidents will fly together to Toledo, Ohio, in what some experts are dubbing a veritable bilateral campaign swing.

Fox is drawn to Toledo by more than just the growing numbers of Mexicans who were first attracted by the tomato fields and cherry groves of Ohio and Michigan. There is also a family lure -- it was from Ohio that Fox's Irish-American grandfather traveled to Mexico.

From Toledo, the two leaders will return to Washington, where Fox plans on Friday to meet with officials of the Organization of American States and discuss economics with several Washington think tanks. The Mexican president then will fly to Miami before returning to Mexico.

Once their meetings are concluded, Bush and Fox must face political uncertainties against the backdrop of a sluggish economy.

"The two presidents can push the paradigm, but at the end of the day they will have to go back to their respective Congresses to pass their agendas," said Delal Baer, a senior fellow and director of the Mexico project for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"In Mexico, things get particularly complicated, since it's so different from before," Baer said. "No longer can the Mexican president just snap his fingers and get things done."

Fox must deal with the Mexican Congress in which no party has a majority. That could spell gridlock for some of his goals -- particularly the immigration initiatives.

In fact, Fox is already having problems getting some of his proposals through. Tonight Fox gives his state of the nation address in Mexico City, which will be broadcast on Tijuana Television stations beginning at 3 p.m. PDT.

And Bush is facing some of his own battles.

After the White House last month floated the idea of legalization for millions of Mexicans, Bush faced resistance from many conservatives in Congress. Since then, administration officials acknowledged they will move slowly on reform -- disappointing many supporters of the proposed immigration overhaul.

"This has put Bush in a very delicate position, because there are a lot of expectations at this point, because everyone wants something and they believe something will happen," said Gabriela Lemus, director of policy for the United League of Latin American Citizens, known as LULAC. "Somebody is going to criticize no matter what."

Copley News Service correspondent Marcus Stern contributed to this report.