Union Tribune

January 12, 2004

Immigration policies at the forefront for Bush, Fox at the Americas summit


WASHINGTON – A month after Mexican President Vicente Fox failed to win approval of economic reforms that could have helped his citizens stay home, President Bush is crossing the border with a new plan to offer work to millions of illegal immigrants.

Fox is to greet Bush and other hemispheric heads of state for the two-day Summit of the Americas beginning today in Monterrey, Mexico.

The two presidents will sit down together privately today and undoubtedly will discuss Bush's effort to jump-start immigration reform, which some believe might be Fox's best shot at jump-starting his own stalled presidency.

Bush's proposal last week to give temporary legal status to illegal immigrants living in the United States, including an estimated 4 million to 6 million Mexicans, was a unilateral step by the president.

U.S.-Mexico analysts and Bush administration officials say they believe Fox must now help Bush to persuade Congress to approve the politically explosive plan during an election year.

Many say Mexico must provide more enforcement at the border.

"We will really need to have the Mexican government continue and increase its efforts in this area," National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said Friday. Rice did not set increased border controls from the Mexican side as a condition for Bush's proposal.

She did say "the Mexican government doesn't like to see people trying to cross the border illegally" because "the harshness of what faces these people when they try to walk across the Rio Grande, so to speak, is really, really awful."

Robert Leiken, a guest scholar at the Nixon Center, said that in return for a massive temporary worker program, the Mexican government would need to commit to a crackdown on those who would not receive visas but would head north anyway – illegally.

"They would have to do more on border enforcement," Leiken said.

The Bush administration has yet to explain fully how it would curtail future efforts by Mexicans to cross illegally into the United States in search of work.

The United States has long wanted Mexico's help in preventing people from approaching the border from the south with the intention of crossing illegally. But Mexican officials have demurred.

Although Mexican law requires that people enter and leave the country at designated border crossings, the Mexican Constitution guarantees the right of free movement within the country.

Fox said Friday that he hoped to have wide-ranging discussions with Bush.

"I don't just want to talk to him about the proposal that he made public, but the case of Mexico in particular," Fox said, adding that "we want to see about the specific case of Mexican migrants and the situation of Mexican migrants on the border. We have to cover this subject fully."

Bush has launched what promises to be a feisty debate in Congress and across the country. The estimated 8 million to 12 million illegal immigrants have amplified the demographic shock waves of more than three decades of massive legal migration.

Meanwhile, the plight of illegal Mexican immigrants has sparked outrage in Mexico, where every border death is widely mourned and where remittances from El Norte feed millions.

"People see the U.S. as hypocritical," said Mexican Sen. Jeffrey Jones of the border state of Chihuahua. "The economic system sends signals (for Mexicans) to come, but the political system doesn't coincide."

The Bush-Fox visit could rekindle the high hopes of both sides for an immigration deal that arose after they met at Fox's ranch in early 2001.

But Bush's move also is fraught with risks and the threat of backlash from several directions.

Some conservative Republicans in Congress have vowed to oppose the plan. A coalition of immigration advocacy groups already has launched a Spanish-language TV campaign attacking Bush. Airing in Florida, Nevada and New Mexico – three states where the Hispanic vote could be critical – the ad claims that because the Bush plan would not provide amnesty for illegal immigrants, it "is robbing our future" to help U.S. business interests.

Fox's former foreign minister said in an interview that the Mexican government should launch a major lobbying effort in the United States on behalf of legislation that would flesh out Bush's proposals.

"We need to be very active, very vocal and push real hard, and not just in the Congress," said Jorge Castañeda, who is weighing a presidential run in Mexico in 2006. "We should also get people who are on our side to push Congress, very much as we did with NAFTA. We need to push people to push people."

Castañeda, who directed Fox's immigration strategy until resigning last year in frustration at the lack of movement from the Bush administration, said a pivotal issue for Mexico is guest worker access to green cards, the visas that provide permanent residence.

He said those who want green cards should be allowed to work in the United States for as long as it takes for them to receive the document. That issue is expected to be a point of major confrontation in Congress.

Some critics contend Bush's plan would open up millions of U.S. jobs to foreigners who would drive down wages and erode living standards. Others warn that it will encourage a new wave of illegal immigration.

However, Jeffrey Davidow, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, praises Bush for facing up to a problem that Congress last confronted in a major way in 1986. That year, Congress passed a law that provided amnesty for 2.7 million illegal immigrants and promised – but never delivered – a crackdown on those who employ them.

"For the first time since 1986, a president is saying our migration policy really is sick and must be cured," Davidow said. "The question becomes whether the cure is sufficient to the illness. But I think it's a good first step."

Copley News Service Mexico City bureau chief S. Lynne Walker contributed to this report.