Bush, Fox set aside differences

Mexican president backs plan to ease immigration for millions of workers

January 13, 2004|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

MONTERREY, Mexico - Mexican President Vicente Fox embraced President Bush's plan to ease U.S. immigration laws, saying yesterday that the changes would improve life for millions of Mexican workers in the United States.

Meeting at the start of a two-day Summit of the Americas, the two leaders agreed to put aside past differences and work together on more open borders and expanded trade. But other tensions remained as 34 leaders from throughout the Western Hemisphere gathered in northern Mexico to look for ways to promote democracy and economic development in the region.

Leaders from Brazil and Venezuela said they would try to slow Bush's push for a free-trade agreement linking the entire hemisphere. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, under pressure from the White House to cut his ties to Cuba's Fidel Castro, arrived in a defiant mood.

Before leaving Caracas, Chavez said he would use the summit to "tell the world" that Venezuelans would not tolerate what he called U.S. interference in his country's affairs. Canada and the United States have joined forces to try to block Chavez's push for a new humanitarian aid fund for Latin America.

Bush also faced some tough questions about his Iraq policy during a joint news conference with Fox.

"The decision I made was the right one for America," Bush said when asked about the mounting death toll. "And history will prove that it's the right one for the world."

He sidestepped the question when asked about former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's assertion that planning for the Iraq invasion started shortly after Bush took office.

"The stated policy of my administration toward Iraq was very clear. Like the previous administration, we were for regime change," Bush said.

Fox, whose opposition to the invasion strained relations with Bush, offered his congratulations for the capture of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The Mexican president also gave his strongest endorsement yet for Bush's immigration proposal.

The plan, which falls far short of Fox's goal of an open border, would let as many as 8 million illegal workers become legal by joining a new temporary worker program. Although the plan is not limited to Mexico, the vast majority of illegal workers in the United States came from the neighboring nation.

"What we want is the plan presented by President Bush," Fox said, calling it "a very important step forward" that would let illegal workers come into the open with full legal rights.

In response to a question from a Mexican reporter, Bush acknowledged that the election-year proposal could have a political benefit. Skeptics, including some leading Mexican commentators, have suggested that the plan is primarily intended to boost Bush's support among Hispanic voters.

"Yes, there's politics involved," Bush said. "And there will probably be politics involved in whether or not it passes Congress. But the reason I proposed the initiative is because it is the right thing for America to do."

Bush said the plan, which faces an uphill fight in Congress, "recognizes the reality" of illegal immigration without rewarding illegal behavior by putting foreign workers on a track to citizenship. Guest workers could apply for citizenship, but they would have no advantage over any other foreigner.

"These are hard-working, decent, honorable people that are in our country to fill jobs that others won't take," Bush said. "It seems to me like it makes sense to have laws that treat people with respect."

In another sign that the two leaders are ready to improve relations, Bush invited Fox and his wife to his Texas ranch in March. Fox canceled a planned 2002 visit to protest the execution in Texas of a Mexican who was convicted of killing a police officer.

The Mexico summit is the fourth time that leaders from Chile to Canada have gotten together to seek regional cooperation. Although they were not scheduled to meet until the 2005 summit in Argentina, Canada proposed the Mexico meeting as a way to bring new leaders into the fold.

Fourteen countries have elected new leaders since the 1991 summit in Quebec, Canada. Of the new leaders, Chavez of Venezuela and President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil have been the most skeptical about the summit's free-trade agenda.

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