The San Diego Union-Tribune

September 7, 2001

Border issues follow leaders to faraway Toledo


TOLEDO, Ohio -- Standing together in front of an enthusiastic audience, President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox yesterday found themselves also confronting a vivid reminder here of the human toll exacted by illegal immigration across the United States' Southwest border.

Greeting the two presidents during a visit to this industrial city with a growing Hispanic presence were several hundred migrant workers with a special message. They were wearing red shirts emblazoned with the names of Mexicans who died crossing the border.

The demonstration at the University of Toledo underscored the urgency of the leaders' mission.

In a tacit acknowledgment of the dangers posed by the border to those who cross it illegally, both men praised Mexican nationals who ventured into the United States to earn a living, sometimes in desperate fashion.

Their message resonated with some.

Noelia Reynoso, 18, a Mexican citizen working as a tomato picker in the area, reacted enthusiastically, saying, "They're getting together to help us here and to make America and Mexico get along."

For Mario Villela, however, the message fell short of expectations. Villela, a migrant worker who came to the United States 17 years ago, said it's easy to find a job but impossible to get one that pays well. He supports a wife and four children on earnings of up to $20,000 a year, he said.

Villela said he has tried but failed to win U.S. citizenship. He was hoping to hear Bush propose programs that would help him become a citizen and secure education and training so he could advance.

While immigration reform constituted a key item on the agenda of the two leaders, Bush acknowledged that the matter is "incredibly complex."

Bush also reached out to critics, particularly workers in Toledo who believe the North American Free Trade Agreement has cost them jobs. And he appealed to those who oppose his plans to overhaul immigration policy, possibly creating a guest-worker program that could result in the legalization of as many as 3 million Mexicans living in the United States. 

"Some want to build walls between Mexico and the United States. Fearful people build walls, confident people tear them down," Bush said.

Fox proclaimed himself happy to be "among friends" in Ohio, which he said he was visiting "because I wanted to meet our own people."

His words provoked resounding applause in the packed university sports arena.

Praising Mexican workers, Bush told the university crowd about migrants who "walk 500 miles to find work."

In a similar vein, Fox praised Mexican nationals who now live in the United States, referring to their "trying experiences" and "many stories of hard work and sacrifice" before moving to the "land of opportunity."

For both presidents, the visit to Toledo had political overtones. Bush's political advisers are convinced he needs the Hispanic vote -- a growing force in American politics -- to get re-elected in 2004. Almost 6 percent of Toledo's 314,000 residents are Hispanic.

For his part, Fox clearly relished the opportunity to show his own voters that he was working to improve the status of their countrymen in the United States.

Speaking to reporters outside the White House before their departure, Bush reacted publicly for the first time to remarks made by Mexico's president upon arriving Wednesday that both nations "must and can" reach an immigration agreement by the end of the year.

Although administration officials said they were caught off guard by Fox's comments, Bush said he "fully understands President Fox's desire to expedite the process."

Bush said he wants to develop an immigration program that becomes a "legal part of our economy."

Acknowledging what White House aides have discussed publicly for weeks, Bush said, "I'm willing to consider ways for a guest worker to earn a green-card status, yet I fully recognize there are a lot of people who stood in line saying they would abide by the laws of the United States."

But the president described the process as further complicated by resistance in Congress.