Union Tribune

January 18, 2004

Fox's support for U.S. immigration plan wanes


WASHINGTON – At a joint news conference Tuesday with President Bush, Mexican President Vicente Fox said he was delighted with Bush's proposal to give temporary legal status to 8 million to 12 million undocumented workers from around the world.

"What else can we wish?" Fox said during a break of a meeting of Western hemisphere leaders in the Mexican city of Monterrey. "What we want is the plan presented by President Bush."

The sentiment has been a noteworthy departure from the Fox administration's earlier calls for permanent legalization for Mexicans living in the United States. His first foreign minister called for "the whole enchilada" – legalization and a package of other reforms – and said nothing less would do.

Fox also accepted an invitation to visit Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch March 5-6.

But it wasn't long after Bush departed from Mexico City that Fox began backtracking from his endorsement of his counterpart's proposal.

"There isn't the slightest doubt that we are going for a complete immigration agreement" with the United States, Fox told an audience in Michoacan state Thursday, two days after Bush's departure.

Fox vowed that his government "will continue working for our countrymen, for their labor rights, their human rights, their relationship with Mexico and their families, for their dignity and safety."

Fox's declaration that he would push Bush for more than what the United States already has unilaterally offered reflects the treacherous domestic political currents that have buffeted him for more than two years. His critics have attacked him for being too cozy with Bush and failing to win protections for the 4 million to 6 million Mexicans estimated to be living illegally in the United States.

In early 2001, as the two new presidents settled into office, Fox persuaded Bush to acknowledge a joint responsibility for managing the flow of undocumented Mexican immigrants to the United States. But U.S. priorities turned toward border security after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Fox was accused of selling out Mexican sovereignty as his government cooperated with U.S. anti-terror efforts.

Those accusations returned earlier this month as U.S. and Mexican security personnel worked together at the Mexico City airport after U.S. intelligence sources warned of a possible plot to hijack a plane bound for the United States.

Fox was targeted with outraged cries that he had allowed an assault on Mexico's national sovereignty. Leftist critic Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas said Fox had become "Bush's peon."

Fox's speech in Michoacan illustrated that immigration carries an electoral charge in Mexico as well as the United States, said Armand Peschard, director of the Mexico program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"For President Bush, it (the immigration proposal) is about dividing the Hispanic vote," which has long leaned hard toward the Democrats, he said. "On the Mexican side, it's about trying to score political points in a year when there will be elections for the governors of 10 states."

Fox would like to give a boost to candidates from his center-right National Action Party by sounding less than fully satisfied with Bush's proposal, Peschard added.

A White House official who helped design the president's proposal said congressional hearings on immigration are expected early next month.

The administration has its work cut out for it. A CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll released Monday found that 55 percent of Americans surveyed said they oppose Bush's plan, while 42 percent favored it.

"We see this as a domestic matter that takes enactment by our Congress, so that's obviously the first place we're going to go to work," said Margaret Spellings of the Domestic Policy Council. "Obviously, the Mexican government has a (lobbying) presence on the (Capitol) Hill, and we have bilateral processes that are ongoing. But our primary focus is going to be the Congress."

Fox's insistence in Michoacan that he would pursue a "complete" agreement appeared to echo his former foreign minister's insistence on a "whole enchilada" that would include access to U.S. citizenship for Mexicans living illegally in the United States, if they wanted it.

Bush's proposal, which applies equally to immigrants from around the world and allows them to bring their families to the United States, would provide no direct path to citizenship.

But the president is willing to allow those who are legalized temporarily to apply for permanent residence, which is the first step toward naturalization, if they qualify based on some other reason than their participation in the program.

For instance, they could be considered for permanent residence if they married a U.S. citizen or were sponsored by their employer. Bush is also willing to allow three-year temporary visas to be renewed.