San Diego Union Tribune

March 7, 2004

U.S. chief reiterates worker plan support


CRAWFORD, Texas In their two-day reunion that ended here yesterday, President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox demonstrated publicly what they have long said: The U.S.-Mexico relationship is too important to be neglected, too complex to be spoiled by passing disappointments.

Their once made-for-each-other political romance bent in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and broke last year over the Iraq war. But yesterday, Fox's two-day visit to Bush's 1,600-acre ranch ended with both leaders touting the relationship between the two countries as well as their own.

Bush repeated his call for a controversial new temporary worker plan and endorsed his administration's proposal to allow Mexicans on temporary visas to be exempt from being photographed or fingerprinted once they enter this country. Fox favors both plans.

"Mexico and the United States are more than neighbors," Bush said during a joint news conference outside his home yesterday. "We are partners in building a safer, more democratic and more prosperous hemisphere.

"In this age of terror," the president added, "the security of our borders is more important than ever."

For his part, Fox thanked Bush for "the moments of friendship, moments of strengthening our personal relationship and moments of work."

Although there were no significant breakthroughs, Fox expressed his appreciation for Bush's efforts to make it easier for Mexicans to frequently cross the border to enter the United States.

Bush's administration has proposed to exempt frequent Mexico-U.S. travelers from an impending requirement that they be fingerprinted and photographed before crossing the border.

Although U.S. officials indicated that details have yet to be worked out, Fox spoke as if it was a done deal.

"We welcome the news that was confirmed today with regard to visitors to the U.S. from Mexico," Fox said. "We appreciate what this will do to the flow of visitors now that they will not have to be photographed or fingerprinted at the border for short visits to the United States."

The Mexican president once again endorsed Bush's plan to provide work visas for the millions of illegal immigrants who have found work in the United States, most of whom are Mexican. Bush also wants to allow employers to bring in more workers from around the world when Americans cannot readily be found.

Bush's plan has met stiff resistance from the Republican-controlled Congress, but Bush defended his proposal yesterday.

Bush said his proposal "recognizes that there are good, honorable, hard-working people here doing jobs Americans won't do."

"I certainly hope the Congress takes this issue up," Bush said. "But there's no telling what's going to happen in an election year."

While the two presidents have met briefly at several international conferences over the past two years, the meeting here was their first extensive visit since Fox's euphoric state visit to Washington in the first week of September 2001, shortly before the terrorist attacks.

When U.S.-Mexico immigration talks stalled in the aftermath of Sept. 11, Fox, who had staked his reputation on winning immigration concessions from the United States, fumed like a scorned suitor.

Their most public falling out occurred a year ago, as Fox took a strong stand against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Mexico held a seat on the United Nations Security Council at the time and Fox spurned an urgent and personal appeal for support from Bush, who was furious at the snub.

But while the men at the top brooded, their bureaucracies moved ahead with the daily business of border security, NAFTA-era trade, law enforcement cooperation and environmental consultations. Meanwhile, a half-million Mexicans move to the United States every year, most of them illegally, as they flee an economy that has concentrated wealth in the hands of a few and a government whose inter-party feuding spoiled Fox's vows for sweeping reform.

"The weight of economics and demography is pushing the two countries closer together than would have been conceivable even a few years ago," said Jeffrey Davidow, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico.