Clinton, Zedillo to Meet as Immigration Tension Grows : Mexico: U.S. President has drifted toward limits as restrictions gain support in Congress and nation.


Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo arrives at the White House today for a debut state visit whose outward warmth will veil a growing distance between the two governments on the pivotal issue of immigration.

Since President Clinton's first visit with a Mexican head of state in 1993, his Administration has drifted toward a more restrictionist policy as sentiment favoring such a program has welled in Congress and the public.

From simply stepping up border enforcement, the Administration initially began advocating pilot tests of a program that would allow employers to tap into a government database to verify a prospective employee's immigration status.

And in recent months, the Administration has taken its most surprising step, embracing the reduction of legal immigration levels. In this area, the Administration moved even further than congressional reformers and the activist immigration reform commission of former Rep. Barbara Jordan (D-Tex.) by announcing that it wants to cut annual levels of immigrants from about 800,000 to 490,000.

The drift of this policy, if not the specifics, has alarmed many Mexicans who fear that immigrants are being blamed for controversial trade policies and rising drug traffic in the United States.

Mexican government officials have indicated that they understand the political realities facing Clinton on the issue. The President "is trying to work around the extreme [positions] that we have seen in Congress and other places," Mexican Ambassador Jesus Silva Herzog said in an interview Monday.

Yet Zedillo, who is on a four-day visit, is in a difficult situation: His political position at home is weak, and he relies on his bigger neighbor to the north, which helped keep the Mexican financial system afloat through the travails that threatened the peso last winter.

For domestic consumption, Zedillo is expected to stress his concern for the civil rights of Mexicans in this country at the conclusion of his top-level meetings here.

But, in private meetings with U.S. immigration experts, Mexican officials have signaled that they know they do not have the clout to inaugurate any dramatic program of emigration control.

The Washington meeting will be the second face-to-face encounter for Clinton and Zedillo.

Topics on the agenda include:

* Further implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

* The progress of economic reforms in Mexico.

* Proposed reforms of the Mexican judicial system.

* Cooperation on narcotics programs.

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