President Bush could use his two-day talks with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts today and tomorrow to alter his standing at home by giving President Vicente Fox of Mexico a long-overdue dose of tough love.
Mr. Bush will not revive his fortunes in the polls so long as the Iraq war festers like a noxious sore on the body politic. But with straight talk in Cancun, he might end the free fall in his public approval level, which has plummeted to 34 percent.
How have U.S.-Mexican relations evolved in recent years? How might Mr. Bush move the bilateral dialogue to a different level by jettisoning patronizing rhetoric for candor in parleys with Mr. Fox? Perhaps Mr. Bush can point out that Mexico can do more for its citizens, especially those so mired in poverty that they try to flee to the United States for work.
Even before Mr. Fox took office 5 1/2 years ago, he jetted to Washington to propose comprehensive immigration reform. This so-called big enchilada included more visas for Mexicans, the expansion of the guest-worker program and the "regularization" (a euphemism for legalization) of the 10 million or so Mexicans living unlawfully north of the Rio Grande.
Mr. Bush and Mr. Fox showed every indication of working together. The men, who delighted in calling themselves "the dos amigos," had known each other as governors, enjoyed spending time on their ranches, wore cowboy boots and had just won the top posts in their countries.
As part of this binational love-fest, the Senate praised the Mexican people for electing Mr. Fox, thereby breaking a 71-year single-party grip on their country's presidency. Mr. Bush made his first trip abroad to Mexico; the U.S. attorney general lauded the Fox regime for its cooperation on immigration and drug issues; and official Washington rolled out the red carpet in early September 2001, when Mr. Fox made the first state visit of the Bush presidency.
Mr. Bush spoke enthusiastically about pushing pro-Mexican immigration proposals through an ambivalent Congress.
This era of good feelings began to sour after 9/11. While world leaders expressed solidarity with the United States, the Fox administration sent mixed signals. Relations deteriorated further when Mexico's U.N. representative excoriated the dispatch of U.S. troops to Iraq.
Ambassador Tony Garza further strained ties in August when he temporarily shuttered the U.S. Consulate in Nuevo Laredo, where drug lords, competing for routes into the Southwest, had killed more than 100 people during the year. For their part, members of the Mexican Senate and Chamber of Deputies have applauded recent demonstrations in Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities against a tough immigration bill pending before the Senate.
As a lame duck deemed a political liability by many GOP lawmakers seeking re-election, Mr. Bush can take one of two courses in Cancun.
He can continue to spout nostrums about "matching willing workers with willing employers," even though he knows that a wary Congress is poised to strengthen rather than liberalize immigration statutes. A solid House majority opposes a new guest-worker scheme.
An alternative would be for Mr. Bush to point out to Mr. Fox that Mexico is richly endowed with oil, gas, silver, gold, scenic coastlines, archaeological treasures, major industrial centers and hard-working people.
Second, he could observe that, when oil revenues are excluded, Mexico collects only 9 percent of its gross domestic product in taxes - about Haiti's level. Low taxes and ubiquitous tax evasion mean that the nation's pampered elite spend little on education and welfare, which are crucial to creating opportunities for young people.
Third, Mr. Bush might ask why, if employment opportunities are lacking in his nation, Mr. Fox permits at least 42,000 Guatemalan guest workers to work on coffee ranches in Chiapas and in the tourist industry on the Mayan Riviera, where Mr. Bush, Mr. Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will hang out.
Fourth, Mr. Bush could explain that the United States - far from being hostile to immigrants - admitted 1 million newcomers last year via the legal route, mostly from Mexico and other Latin American countries.
Finally, Mr. Bush should explain that elected U.S. officials have a duty to constituents who, in ever-larger numbers, are turning thumbs down on illegal entries. A Fox News poll conducted in April found that 63 percent of respondents believed that undocumented immigration was a "very serious" problem for the United States and another 28 percent thought it was "somewhat serious." Sixty percent of respondents to a late 2005 ABC News/Washington Post survey favored erecting a barrier at the border; only 26 percent disapproved.
Above all, Mr. Bush should stress to Mr. Fox that a porous U.S. border will no longer serve as an escape valve that permits Mexican elites to shirk their responsibility to the half of their 106 million fellow citizens who are living in poverty. The American public would applaud such forthrightness.
George W. Grayson, who teaches at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, is the author of the forthcoming "Mexican Messiah." His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.