Union Tribune

May 8, 2003

Mexico seeks higher profile for issue of immigrants


WASHINGTON – Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernest Derbez yesterday acknowledged that the fight against terrorism is the most pressing concern in his country's relationship with the United States, but insisted that the two countries also must give serious attention to proposals for improving the lives of the estimated 4.5 million Mexican immigrants living here illegally.

Immigration "has to be a priority, and it is a priority for both Mexico and the United States," said Derbez, speaking the English he mastered while earning a doctorate in economics at Iowa State University.

But even as Derbez raised the profile of the immigration issue, he carefully adopted a pragmatic, take-it-slow approach to immigration that contrasted sharply with the aggressive style of his flamboyant predecessor.

He described an incremental approach that involves Mexico's consulates throughout the United States lobbying local and state governments. The consulates are touting specific programs to improve the lives of illegal immigrants, such as in-state tuition rates and liberal policies on the granting of driver's licenses. They have also been urging acceptance of identity cards issued by consular officials in an attempt to ease immigrants' dealings with local authorities and businesses.

Apparently acknowledging the controversy these efforts have stirred in some states, Derbez said, "We are following very closely debates at the local level."

Derbez's one-day visit was intended primarily to smooth over bad feelings here caused by Mexico's opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He moved briskly through a day filled with two speeches as well as brief meetings with Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and congressional leaders.

"After Sept. 11 it became clear for everybody that for each and every nation, and in particular for Mexico and the United States, priority number one in our relationship is the fight against terrorism," said Derbez.

After his formal comments, Derbez engaged a swarm of Mexican reporters, rejecting the claim by one journalist that Mexico's efforts to strengthen border security meant that the country was serving the interests of the United States rather than its own.

In the absence of a secure border, Derbez said in Spanish, "It is Mexico that will suffer because we won't be able to continue exporting and we won't be able to continue generating jobs in our country and we won't be able to continue growing," he said. Derbez noted that total U.S.-Mexico trade is close to $300 billion a year.

Derbez tried to downplay his country's diplomatic showdown with the United States in March over Iraq.

Mexican President Vicente Fox, spurning a personal appeal from President Bush for support, lined up with other Security Council members in calling for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

"It's an amazing thing for me that so much has been made of the decision," said Derbez, downplaying the disagreement that pitted Bush's "you're with us or against us" diplomacy against Fox's invocation of traditional Mexican opposition to armed intervention.

Bush, at a news conference with Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar yesterday, said, "We've got great relations with Mexico, and we'll continue to have great relations with Mexico."

It was Fox himself who had dramatically called attention to his decision even after cancellation of a Security Council vote on the matter. In what was widely regarded both as a gratuitous swipe at the United States and grandstanding for domestic consumption, Fox went on national television to announce that Mexico would have voted against the United States had the tally been taken.

Reuters contributed to this article.