Fox asks U.S. to improve plight of Mexican workers

He seeks accord by year's end on illegal immigrants

September 06, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In a bold challenge to the Bush administration, President Vicente Fox of Mexico called yesterday for an agreement by the end of the year to greatly expand the rights of Mexicans working in the United States.

Fox's push for a quick accord to improve the status of the roughly 3 million illegal Mexican immigrants in this country would have to overcome deep opposition in Congress. Some lawmakers are concerned about how legalizing immigrants would affect the U.S. economy and American workers.

The Mexican president made his remarks, which appeared to surprise some U.S. officials, during a welcome ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House that was otherwise all pomp and pageantry. The ceremony marked the start of the first state visit to Washington by a foreign leader under the Bush administration.

"The time has come to give migrants and their communities their proper place in the history of our bilateral relations," Fox said. "Both our countries owe them a great deal."

His year-end deadline initially sparked some confusion, because just days earlier the Mexican president had spoken of a four- to six-year timetable for a formal accord giving undocumented workers all the rights afforded legal immigrants.

Some officials explained yesterday that Fox was suggesting that the two sides agree by year's end simply on principles and concepts. Negotiators would likely follow up to draft a treaty over a period of up to six years.

In his remarks yesterday, Fox said he was confident that the two nations "could reach an agreement on migration before the end of this very year."

That, Fox added, "would allow us, before the end of our respective terms, to make sure that there are no Mexicans who have not entered this country legally in the United States, and that those Mexicans who have come into the country do so with proper documents."

Fox was clearly trying to intensify public pressure on Bush to act on Mexican immigration, a sensitive area in which Bush has navigated carefully in recent months.

Fox losing support

Foreign policy experts say that the Mexican president, who is facing dwindling poll numbers at home, must demonstrate to his constituents that he is prepared to fight for American support on a cause that is dear to Mexicans.

Bush, asked about Fox's call for some agreement in principle by the end of the year, pretended not to understand the question and joked in Spanish, "I can't hear," the Associated Press reported.

Later in the day, his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said the administration was "aware of President Fox's objective."

"We knew he was going to bring it up during this meeting," Rice said.

She said she was unaware, however, that Fox planned to issue a challenge to Bush in front of an audience at the welcome ceremony.

"Did he clear our remarks and we clear his?" Rice said. "No."

Bush, she added, "has shown a desire to do this as quickly as possible - but to do it right."

Since Bush's visit to Mexico in February, officials from both nations have been working to forge an agreement on immigration. But both sides have acknowledged that important divisions remain.

Opposition in Congress

Fox favors a plan that would legally recognize millions of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the United States. Bush said this week that any "blanket amnesty" would be impossible to get through Congress.

Sen. Phil Gramm, a veteran Texas Republican, has long said that such amnesty would be approved "over my dead political body."

Bush said he favors a more modest "guest worker" program that would permit Mexicans to hold temporary jobs in the United States.

Practically, Fox's challenge to Bush to sign an agreement within four months means little. Foreign policy experts said that the two sides could produce a set of specific objectives on immigration but would not necessarily need Congress' approval to claim that they had met Fox's challenge.

But politically, Fox's public insistence on some kind of pact soon was important for him.

Fox won a historic election last year, ending 71 years of one-party rule in a country that has suffered from decades of corruption and economic weakness. He promised to promote democracy and to revive the economy.

Since then, he has been forced to acknowledge that progress will be slower than he had hoped. His once-soaring poll numbers have slipped, he has been hurt by a recession brought on in large part by the economic slowdown in the Unites States, and many in the opposition parties argue that he has failed to live up to expectations.

Top priority in Mexico

Eric Olson, a Mexico expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, said that Fox was under pressure to show progress on the one issue - immigration - that he has portrayed as the top priority in his relationship with Bush.

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