Sights lowered for visit by Fox

No easy solutions on migration, drugs, U.S.-Mexico trade

Show of cooperation likely

September 05, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - When President Bush welcomes his Mexican counterpart to the White House today, he will celebrate a symbiotic partnership that offers both men potential political gains and already has elevated Mexico's stature in the world.

What Britain's Margaret Thatcher was for Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair was for Bill Clinton, Vicente Fox is for George W. Bush - a foreign leader with whom the president enjoys a personal rapport that could smooth the path to agreements on issues critical to both nations.

But the ambitious policy agenda the two explored at their first meeting in February has collided with reality in both countries, forcing them to lower their sights, particularly on the highly charged issue of easing barriers to Mexicans who want to work in the United States.

"Both were running ahead of what's domestically politically possible, and now they're walking it back to see how much they can actually accomplish," said Robert Leiken, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

By breaking decades of corrupt one-party rule in Mexico with his election last year, Fox single-handedly raised his country's credibility. Before, Mexico was not considered a full-fledged democracy. The Fox-Bush friendship has heightened Mexico's importance, to the point where even Britain's Blair has described Mexico as a "major political force in the world."

Fox and his new bride, Martha Sahagun, arrived in Washington last night. They will be greeted by the president and first lady in an official ceremony on the South Lawn this morning.

Certainly, Fox's visit has all the trappings befitting a high-profile alliance. It will be the first official state visit of the Bush presidency - a leap in protocol beyond the working visits Bush has received from numerous foreign leaders - and will include unusual twists: a joint Cabinet meeting today; a trip tomorrow to Toledo, Ohio, where the two presidents will visit a Hispanic community center; and an intimate dinner given by Fox at Blair House, the presidential guesthouse.

These are the kinds of events designed to boost a foreign leader's political standing at home by showing him being treated as a distinguished near-equal by the world's foremost power. This is especially true for Mexico, which long has chafed at its poor-cousin treatment by Washington.

For Bush, there's a potential payoff as well: growing political support among a heavily Democratic Hispanic population that, at 35 million, rivals that of African-Americans. Two-thirds are Mexican-Americans.

The leaders' eagerness to cooperate offers the promise of solving, or easing, the thorny and politically sensitive problems that have dogged the two countries for decades. Chief among these is immigration. Fox has proposed nothing less than a shared work force that would give legitimacy to the 3 million Mexicans working illegally in the United States.

Bush, while rejecting blanket amnesty for illegal immigrants, is intent on achieving reforms that match "willing workers and willing employers" in this country, giving the economies of both nations a boost.

But as Fox arrives, the two sides are not close to a deal and will have to settle for an agreement on a framework and principles to address the problem.

"I don't think the complexity of the issue was sufficiently appreciated back in February," a senior Bush administration official said.

The issue cuts across barriers of ethnicity, the labor-management divide and regional interests in the United States.

Within his Republican Party, Bush has encountered sharp opposition to any form of amnesty. Peter Hakim, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, said the two countries nevertheless have reached an understanding on two principles: that the Mexican government must begin cooperating to reduce the flow of illegal migrants, and that Mexicans living illegally in the United States need a mechanism for gaining legal status.

The Bush and Fox governments encountered a barrier to increased cooperation on trade when Congress imposed safety inspections on Mexican trucks that effectively would turn them back at the border. Bush, saying that the vote violated the North American Free Trade Agreement, has threatened to veto the legislation.

On another long-standing irritant, drug smuggling, Fox's get-tough stance offered the promise of reversing decades of resentment between the nations. The United States long considered Mexico a haven for drug lords, and Mexico viewed the United States as having focused its anti-drug efforts south of the border.

"Both sides formally share the same perspective," Hakim said. "The finger-pointing and blame have been diminishing for some time. But do our law enforcement agencies trust theirs? We're a long way from that."

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