San Diego Union Tribune

March 4, 2004

Mexican president headed to Texas

By S. Lynne Walker and Jerry Kammer

MEXICO CITY – There will be smiles and handshakes at President Bush's Texas ranch tomorrow when Mexican President Vicente Fox arrives for a two-day visit.

Hardly anyone expects the two presidents will resolve any substantial issues such as immigration or a dispute over water.

They will grip hands and grin for dozens of television and newspaper photographers, just as the Bush re-election campaign cranks up a multimillion-dollar Spanish-language advertising campaign to woo Latino voters.

"This is about grandstanding, to show that the big amigos are buddies again," said political analyst Federico Estévez, noting that the relationship was strained last year over Fox's outspoken opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Fox, who long has been frustrated by the lack of decisive movement to legalize millions of his citizens in the United States, is trying to lower expectations of quick action in the run-up to the U.S. presidential election.

"We may have to wait for a resolution until after the election," he said in an interview at his residence in Mexico City. "This will take time. We are aware of that. So we are working on other things that can be decided in the short term."

A Bush administration source said the president will pledge to get a bill to Congress that will embody the principles he laid out in a January speech. Bush outlined a program then that would provide temporary legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants already in the country, and allow U.S. employers to bring in foreign workers to fill jobs for which Americans are not readily available.

"The White House is working on translating those things into a specific proposal that they can take to Congress," said the administration source, who asked not to be identified.

The official said the White House wants to counter criticism that the speech was an election-year ploy intended to play to Latino voters.

A politically sensitive issue up for discussion is a plan by the Bush administration to send illegal Mexican immigrants back to their villages, rather than simply release them at the border.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Mexican Interior Minister Santiago Creel last month agreed to explore the possibility of implementing a repatriation program.

Fox said the Bush administration must respond to Mexico's human rights concerns before a final agreement can be drafted.

Fox also said the repatriation must be "a voluntary decision."

Fox is likely to raise concerns about Mexicans held on death rows in the United States.

In 2002, when Fox last was scheduled to visit the Bush ranch, he canceled in protest of Texas' execution of a Mexican who had been convicted of murder.

Although both presidents expect a political boost from being seen together, Fox said the objective is solving problems rather than generating positive public relations.

"If these meetings help President Bush's image or help the image of President Fox, that is secondary," Fox said. "We are both going into this with a very professional and very serious sense of what we have to build together."

Copley News Service Mexico City bureau chief S. Lynne Walker reported from Mexico City; Copley News Service correspondent Jerry Kammer reported from Washington, D.C.