The San Diego Union-Tribune

September 6, 2001


Fox springs a surprise on Bush
    Says two nations can reach deal on migrants this year


WASHINGTON -- Mixing pageantry and diplomacy, President Bush welcomed Mexican President Vicente Fox yesterday with a 21-gun salute, a state dinner and a plate full of thorny issues, including prospects for an immigration agreement that Fox surprisingly said could be reached by the end of the year.

Fox challenged Bush and other U.S. officials, insisting that "we must and we can" reach an immigration overhaul agreement. He said that although he hoped such a agreement could be reached soon, it might not take effect for several years.

"The time has come to give migrants and their communities their proper place in the history of our bilateral relations," Fox said on the White House South Lawn as Bush listened.

"Working together, both of us can build new conditions for them as well as for the development and prosperity of our two nations," Fox said. "For this reason we must and we can reach an agreement on migration before the end of this very year."

Fox's statement at the opening of the three-day presidential summit seemed to throw Bush administration officials off guard. It also seemed to dispel the cautionary tones expressed by White House and Mexican officials in recent weeks over the slow progress of the immigration talks.

Citing political pressures and complex negotiations, top-level officials -- and the two presidents themselves -- acknowledged this week that their bilateral meetings have yet to yield a specific framework for a guest-worker program, which could also include legalization for an estimated 3 million undocumented
Mexicans residing in the United States.

Attorney General John Ashcroft, who along with Secretary of State Colin Powell has been preparing the U.S. plan, said he could not predict when an agreement could be reached.

Ashcroft said both countries hope to reach an agreement at "the earliest possible time, and I think that's something that it's clear that both the presidents agree on. 

"I believe the president of Mexico has stated an objective that is consistent with the objective we have -- that is, treating people with dignity, recognizing their contribution, developing a capacity to have an orderly process for migration," Ashcroft said.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said Bush officials "were aware that President Fox had this objective."

"We think that it would be terrific if we were able by the end of the year to achieve agreement," Rice said.

Bush and Fox met privately in the Oval Office as Cabinet-level officials of both countries held meetings on an array of issues, ranging from environment to law enforcement. The countries are developing a set of working principles on the immigration plan, officials said.

Fox's comments, downplayed by Bush officials, nevertheless caused a stir among observers of U.S.-Mexican relations.

"It's a surprise in the sense that the pace of both sides in the immigration debate has slowed down in the last few weeks, but consistent with discussions that were taking place a month ago," said Deborah Meyers, an immigration specialist with the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. "I think this is Fox's way of making sure the topic stays at the front -- it puts
pressure on both bureaucracies. I think he took President Bush by surprise by saying that, seizing the issue."

Among the politics yesterday were flourishes and ruffles.

Last night, Bush and first lady Laura Bush hosted Fox and his wife, Martha Sahagún, at the White House for the first state dinner of the Bush administration. The 130 guests included elected officials, Cabinet members, community leaders, academicians, business leaders and entertainers.

Californians attending included Roman Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles; actor Clint Eastwood; and state Assemblyman Abel Maldonado, R-San Luis Obispo.

Guests dined on pepita-crusted bison -- selected by Bush -- in a menu that included tequila sabayon to put on their mango and coconut ice cream, and wines produced by first-generation Mexican-American vintners from California.

The pomp began yesterday morning as Bush greeted Fox at the White House, where the red carpet was rolled out to the South Lawn. Military bands played the national anthems of both countries and the chief executives were honored with a 21-gun salute.

In greeting Fox, Bush stuck to general themes of unprecedented cooperation, saying he wanted to build a "century of the Americas." The president added that "the United States has no more important relationship in the world than the one we have with Mexico."

Bush declared that "the starting point of a sound foreign policy is to build a stable and prosperous neighborhood with good relations among neighbors.

"Good neighbors," the president said, "work together and benefit from each others' successes." He called Fox "a Mexican patriot with a great vision for a great people, a vision of justice and prosperity."

Fox also spoke glowingly of the countries' warm relationship. But he then fired his own salvo in his quest to complete the immigration reform agreement by the end of the year.

Fox said he wanted to "make sure that there are no undocumented Mexicans who have entered this country illegally in the United States and that those Mexicans who have come into the country do so with the proper documents."

Since ending the Institutional Revolutionary Party's seven-decade hold on the Mexican White House, Fox has made immigration reform a cornerstone of his new presidency. He is expected to press his case for immigration changes
today in a speech to a joint meeting of Congress before he and Bush fly to Toledo, Ohio, an industrial city with a growing Latino presence.

Working with Mexican officials, the Bush administration is hoping to prepare a guest-worker plan in which undocumented Mexicans may gain legalization over time. Officials want to balance the needs of many others waiting to become legal immigrants as well as the frustrations of millions from other
countries who may not be eligible for legalization.

Bush repeated yesterday that he opposes general amnesty for illegal immigrants.

But the White House faces resistance among conservatives in Congress for the immigration reform initiative.

And some immigration labor groups said yesterday they were disappointed that the administration's "guiding principles" in the immigration talks did not include the word "legalization."

"There are a couple of sticky issues that have to be worked through. Clearly, the big issue is the possibility of legalization," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. "There's a strong sense that the Bush administration is willing to find the mechanism to find a way to legalize
people who are already here."

Some immigration advocates believe Fox's timetable is too optimistic.

"The legislative debate in Congress probably won't begin until January," said Cecilia Munoz, policy director of the National Council of La Raza. "What determines what happens will be the role the president decides to play in the process. I suspect his advisers know it will be disaster for him to back off."

Officials from both countries announced efforts yesterday to improve education for migrant students and for improved tracking of environmental problems along the border.

One Mexican official said this helped show the broadening of the
U.S.-Mexican relationship.

Past meetings were "very ceremonial with lots of speeches and presentations," said Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, Fox's national security adviser. "Everything was narcoticized -- as if it (drug trafficking) was the only problem that existed between the two countries."

He said that while drug trafficking is still important, "we have established a number of new areas of cooperation that create a balanced agenda."