San Diego Union Tribune

February 29, 2004

Thorny issues await new Bush-Fox talks


WASHINGTON – When President Bush hosts Mexican President Vicente Fox at his Crawford, Texas, ranch Friday and Saturday, the thorny question of granting legal status to millions of people living illegally in the United States is likely to surface again.

The conversation will have come full circle since Fox hosted Bush at his own rancho in the Mexican state of Guanajuato in 2001, when both were freshly minted presidents.

In Guanajuato, Bush agreed to Fox's proposal that the two countries negotiate a new border and immigration agreement. The agreement led quickly to grandiose expectations of a sweeping amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants.

Yet, after several months of negotiations, those expectations crashed headlong into the harsh partisan realities of Capitol Hill as Bush learned how divisive the subject could be for congressional Republicans.

Then the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington changed the nation's priorities, wiping out the momentum the two presidents had established. Negotiations slowed to a halt.

Now Bush and Fox will meet again on the heels of a January proposal by Bush to grant temporary legal status to millions of illegal workers in the United States. Bush also wants to allow employers to import temporary workers from around the world if Americans are not readily available.

By calling for three-year visas with possible renewals and stressing that workers would go home when their visas expired, Bush hoped his proposal could avoid being tarred with the most mortal epithet of the immigration debate – amnesty.

Although Bush's proposal pleased U.S. employer groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and National Restaurant Association, immigration advocates still insisted immigrant workers be given the chance to become permanent residents.

The two presidents will bring different agendas to their Texas meeting. While the White House wants to showcase the renewal of a friendship that was strained by Mexican opposition to the war in Iraq, the Mexicans must decide whether to push for what they once called "the whole enchilada" of broad benefits for the immigrants.

Both sides will be mindful of the hard political lessons of the immigration talks they initiated in 2001.

Expectations dashed
At the World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland, in late January 2001, Mexico Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda took a call on his cell phone from Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser.

When he hung up, he turned to a friend.

"George Bush is coming to Mexico next month," he told Rafael Fernández de Castro, a Mexican professor and student of the United States. ""We're going to move on immigration."

"Isn't it too early?" asked Fernandez. "Bush has just been inaugurated."

"No," replied Castañeda. "We need to do it now."

Castañeda hoped to move fast, before the new Bush administration fully realized the magnitude of the issues.

Jeffrey Davidow, U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 1998 to 2002, said Bush didn't look carefully before he leaped into the crucible of immigration politics.

In a memoir, Davidow wrote, "The new administration in Washington did little serious analysis of the issues before making the commitment. Little thought was given to the real possibilities for success on an issue that was so complex and politically volatile."

The new U.S. president's views were strongly influenced by two important constituencies: Mexican-Americans, with whom he had cultivated warm relations as governor of Texas; and employers – farmers and businessmen who wanted access to a large supply of cheap, pliable labor.

So Bush was inclined to work with Fox, who was determined to improve conditions for migrants he hailed as "national heroes" for their sacrifices on behalf of their families.

As the Bush and Fox administrations had started the negotiations, resistance from congressional Republicans was an obstacle.

Davidow said the hopes of some Republican to court Hispanic voters with a legalization program "ran into harsh, vote-counting reality" of congressional Republicans anxious about a possible voter backlash over illegal immigration.

Davidow, now head of the Institute of the Americas at the University of California San Diego, said White House political adviser Karl Rove had "calculated that any move that could be portrayed as a legalization of undocumented aliens would alienate the president's political base."

New immigration plan
Last fall, with the 2004 elections looming, the White House turned quietly back to immigration, although not to negotiations with Mexico.

Bush's Domestic Policy Council staff began meeting with congressional Republicans who had proposed immigration legislation. They dipped into several bills to find ideas for a proposal.

Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., had co-sponsored one of the bills.

In November, as Flake joined Bush and Rove on a helicopter ride to inspect wildfire damage near Tucson, Rove startled and delighted Flake.

"We're going to make a major push on immigration early next year," he said.

The first public indication that something was in the works came a month later when Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, on a trip to Florida, called for "some kind of legal status" short of citizenship for the estimated 8 million to 12 million immigrants living illegally in the United States. About 60 percent of the illegals are Mexican.

Ridge said legalization would be politically feasible only if it were accompanied by strong action to cut off illegal immigration.

On Jan. 7, with the White House East Room crammed with Cabinet members, congressmen, Hispanic leaders, immigration advocates and the press, Bush laid out his reform proposal.

"Out of common sense and fairness, our laws should allow willing workers to enter our country and fill jobs that Americans are not filling," Bush said.

The president's proposal left many major details to Congress.