November 17, 2002
Two presidents failed to grasp complexity of immigration issue
Mexican officials adjust expectations
By JERRY KAMMER
COPLE Y NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – The White House welcoming ceremony that
kicked off Mexican President Vicente Fox's state visit in the first
week of September 2001 was a crisply formal affair, with an
honor guard, a 21-gun salute and a solemn declaration by
President Bush that "the United States has no more important
relationship in the world than the one we have with Mexico."
But Fox, determined to advance his plan for an immigration deal
that would legalize millions of Mexican immigrants, wanted
more. He surprised the White house with a display of the
boldness and steel-jawed political will that a year earlier had
carried him to an electrifying election victory.
"We must, and we can, reach an agreement on migration before
the end of this very year," Fox said, laying down a timetable for
his most urgent foreign-policy initiative.
Now, more than a year later, U.S.-Mexico talks on immigration
are stalled. The ballyhooed, backslapping friendship between
Bush and Fox appears to have flamed out like an adolescent
When the two leaders met briefly last month at an international
economic summit in Mexico, Fox tried again to engage Bush on
the undocumented immigrants Fox calls heroes and vows to
protect. Bush wasn't buying. He wanted to talk about the war on
terrorism and the dangers of Saddam Hussein. The confab was
called a flop on both sides of the border.
Mexico's hopes on immigration have fallen victim not only to
Bush's focus on terrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks, but also to
the inflated expectations of the two presidents.
Their reach exceeded their grasp of an issue so complex and
freighted with controversy that it defies the comprehensive
"whole enchilada" solution envisioned by the architect of
Mexican's immigration initiatives, Foreign Minister Jorge
Now, Mexican officials say they no longer look to the Fox-Bush
friendship to forge a "grand bargain" providing legal status to
Mexicans in the country illegally. The officials want the United
States to expand a guest-worker program and provide
development aid in Mexico. In return, Mexico would crack
down on the smuggling of people across the border.
The Fox administration, locked in a power struggle with the
former ruling party and eager for success on immigration before
Mexico's crucial mid-term elections next summer, is looking
beyond the White House. It is planning a bottom-up approach, a
nationwide public relations offensive aimed at persuading the
American public that undocumented immigrants who have built
lives for themselves in American communities deserve a chance
to come out of the shadows.
At the beginning of 2001, the dawning of the "dos amigos"
presidential partnership, it seemed so much simpler.
"Bush and Fox seemed perfect for each other," said Nixon Center
scholar Robert Leiken. The two new presidents liked cowboy
boots, straight talk and each other, Leiken said. They strode
confidently toward an issue their predecessors had largely
steered away from. Good will and common sense would carry
Bush, moreover, touted his Texas-bred familiarity with Mexico
as his one solid foreign policy credential. During his campaign,
he had frequently tripped over foreign policy and geography,
calling Greeks "Grecians" and Kosovars "Kosovarians." But he
spoke Spanish – in a way his friends described as flawed but
fearless. He understood border issues from his days as governor
Less than a month after Bush's inauguration, he traveled to Fox's
ranch, conspicuously breaking a tradition that saw the president
make Canada the destination of his first foreign trip.
In the following months, as Secretary of State Colin Powell and
Foreign Minister Castañeda led an immigration "working group"
through a series of meetings, Bush maintained a genial if vague
optimism. He had a formula. He wanted to "match willing worker
with willing employer." Georgetown University Professor John
Bailey says Bush didn't appreciate the complexity of the issue at
the beginning of his term.
"It seemed to me that Bush hadn't thought much about it and
didn't have the staff in place to analyze all that was involved
politically, legislatively, economically," Bailey said. "I think he
wanted to demonstrate good will by saying we needed to take a
look at it. I don't think he had thought it through."
Fox also saw the issue as fundamentally simple. He insisted that
undocumented immigrants were heroes whose self-sacrifice and
hard work in the United States produced cash that sustained
entire communities in Mexico. He waved off the concern that the
White House heard frequently from Republicans who were
agitated at the immigration talks and alarmed at what they called
proposals to reward illegal immigration.
"Let me be clear about this, regularization does not mean
rewarding those who break the law," Fox said in a speech to
Congress during his state visit. "Regularization means that we
will provide them with the legal means that allows them to
continue contributing to this great nation."
"The momentum seemed to have stopped, and the Mexicans
were getting the feeling that the U.S. was having some second
thoughts about reaching an agreement," said Charles Krause, a
former journalist who consulted with Mexico on immigration
Krause said Fox's challenge to Bush on the South Lawn was
written into Fox's speech at the last moment, to convey Mexico's
impatience and sense of urgency. "That was very much because
they had the feeling that the U.S. was dragging its feet."
Then, four days after Fox departed Washington, the terror of
Sept. 11 turned the country upside down. The war on terrorism
and the crusade for tighter borders dominated the political
agenda. Mexican disappointment hardened into desperation.
In the spring, Fox warned in a New York speech that his
country's entire relationship with the United States hinged on
Now Bush and Fox had reversed roles. Bush no longer needed
Fox to legitimize his foreign policy credentials.
Fox, meanwhile, was bedeviled by a string of domestic political
frustrations. His critics claimed that though he had been a
marvelous candidate, he was proving to be a poor president.
Critics tormented Fox for cooperating with Bush's border
security initiatives while getting nothing on immigration in
"Before the attacks, Bush had political reasons to work for
immigration reform," said Leiken, noting Bush's courtship of the
Hispanic vote. "Then suddenly he had political reasons not to do
it because it conflicted with his main message, which is that we're
in a homeland security state."
Meanwhile, the Mexican government is hoping for some sign of
movement from the United States at the end of this month, when
Secretary of State Powell is expected to lead a U.S. delegation to
Mexico City for annual talks on a range of issues.
In Washington on Friday, Jeffrey Davidow, former U.S.
Ambassador to Mexico, called Mexico's preoccupation with
immigration "counter productive." He said Mexico was repeating
the mistake long made by the United States when it put
cooperation against drug trafficking at the center of the
A spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington
responded that President Fox had good reason to put
immigration at the top of his foreign policy agenda.
"Although migration is not the only important issue in the
bilateral relationship, it is understandable that from the Mexican
perspective, it is a high priority," Miguel Monterrubio said. "The
quality of life and the well-being of millions of Mexicans in the
Untied States are a fundamental concern of the Mexican