Union Tribune

May 9, 2002


Immigration pressures mount for Fox


WASHINGTON – The mood was festive at the White House Cinco
de Mayo celebration Friday. Serenaded by mariachis,
surrounded by several hundred mostly Mexican-American
guests, President Bush sprinkled his speech with Spanish and
praise for Mexican President Vicente Fox.

But the relaxed good will that has marked U.S.-Mexican relations
during the Bush and Fox administrations has begun to fade in
recent weeks, with frustration mounting in Mexico City over
Bush's inability to accommodate Fox's expectation of a sweeping
immigration agreement.

The pressure on Fox has gotten so bad that some experts expect
that during a trip to New York this week he will publicly signal
disappointment at the lack of progress in the year-old
immigration negotiations. At one point, it was expected that the
agreement would include amnesty for millions of undocumented
Mexican immigrants and a massive guest-worker program.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, however, any
agreement of that magnitude appears remote, leaving Fox
wishing for less celebration and more immigration, the experts

"President Fox has to clearly say that we haven't obtained much
benefit from a very close relationship," said Rafael Fernández de
Castro, a prominent Mexican political scientist. Fernández also
said the immigration deadlock has put U.S.-Mexico relations at
"somewhat of a crossroads."

A Mexican government source said Fox is getting conflicting
advice from advisers, with some arguing he should intensify
pressure on Bush and others arguing the timing is bad because of
the war on terrorism.

The stakes are high for Fox, who arrived in office with huge
expectations but has had little policy success in his first 18
months. Blocked by an obstreperous opposition in the Mexican
Congress, he is hoping for major changes after next year's
elections and wants an immigration deal to take to voters.

Fox faces other troubles. In a ruling handed down Tuesday,
Mexico's top court dealing with vote issues, the Federal
Electoral Tribunal, ordered a probe into allegations that Fox
illegally received foreign contributions for his 2000 presidential
campaign. Fox praised the decision to investigate him
yesterday, saying the ruling was another sign of Mexico's
strengthening democracy.

The United States wants to help the charismatic, crusading
former Coca-Cola executive. He is widely admired in Washington
for his 2000 election victory, which ended seven decades of
one-party rule that had stifled democracy, bred corruption and
often encouraged nationalistic suspicion of the United States.

"We want President Fox's administration to succeed," said James
Derham, a deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of
Western Hemisphere Affairs. He said the binational immigration
talks looked promising until September's terrorist attacks, which
made border security and immigration controls a U.S.

Meanwhile, Fox has accommodated Bush by signing a border
security agreement, cracking down on drug traffickers and
taking on corruption.

Armand Peschard, director of the Mexico project at the Center
for Strategic and International Studies, said the Fox
administration is under fire at home for what critics call a timid
and overly accommodating approach to the United States – not
only on immigration, but also on border security and relations
with Cuba.

"There are people who are asking what all this cozying up to the
Americans has gotten us," Peschard said. "And the answer is
nothing. Those kinds of comments are starting to resonate
louder and louder in political circles."

Peschard noted that much of the criticism has been focused on
controversial Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda.

A former radical leftist known for both penetrating brilliance
and swaggering arrogance, Castañeda is the architect of the
immigration initiative that Mexico launched almost immediately
after Bush's inauguration.

Castañeda wants to legalize many of the estimated 4 million
Mexicans who have permanently resettled in the United States.
He also wants an expanded U.S. guest-worker program.

Early last year, when Bush agreed to launch high-level talks
aimed at an immigration deal, Castañeda appeared to score a
political coup. But in the absence of concrete results, critics on
both sides of the border now say he overreached. Some say his
agenda was so ambitious that it was unlikely to succeed even in
the absence of September's terrorist attacks.

"Castañeda put the piñata up too high," said a senior Mexican
official who asked not to be identified.

Now Bush, who in September said he wanted to accommodate
Fox's ambitious plans, is thinking more modestly. He has backed
efforts for economic development in Mexico. And he has called
on Congress to extend the deadline on a program that would
allow certain immigrants – who have qualified for visas but
crashed the waiting line – to stay in the country while their visas
are processed.

Facing an unenthusiastic Congress, Bush is not talking about
more ambitious goals.

"The president has repeatedly said he wants to keep momentum
going for an agreement, but there are political realities we have
to recognize," said Derham of the State Department.

Arturo Valenzuela, who served in the State Department under
former President Clinton, said Bush might have matched
Castañeda's exaggerated optimism about the possibilities for an
immigration accord.

"Maybe the president didn't understand the political difficulty of
delivering on immigration," said Valenzuela, now director of
Georgetown University's Center for Latin American Studies. He
said that if Bush truly wants an ambitious deal with Mexico, he
will have to invest some of his political capital in getting it
through Congress.

At this point, Valenzuela said, the administration "is essentially
just saying, 'Congress isn't letting us do that.' "

In Washington this week, Mexican border affairs Commissioner
Ernesto Ruffo Appel said he has encountered firsthand the
reluctance of many members of Congress to get behind an
immigration agreement that would loosen border controls at a
time when border security has become a national obsession.

"They are very positive when we talk about border security and
trade, but when we begin to talk about immigration, they stop
talking," he said.