U.S., Mexico Governors Meet to Seek Border Solutions

TIMES STAFF WRITER

U.S. and Mexican border governors gathered here Friday in a meeting that bubbled with provocative proposals to solve problems ranging from critical shortages of energy and water to drug trafficking and immigration.

Arizona Gov. Jane Dee Hull pushed a "foreign guest worker program" as a way of eliminating the kind of desert tragedy that cost 14 Mexicans their lives in her state last month. Smugglers who led migrants into the desert were "deserving of the death penalty," she said.

New Mexico's Gary Johnson touted his campaign to legalize marijuana. The idea failed to garner unanimous support among the governors but won approval for an academic commission to study drug addiction as a "health, not a criminal, problem."

"You don't go from an arrest 'em, lock 'em up situation to legalization overnight," Johnson said in an interview. "But every governor here is at least willing to look at some middle ground."

The declaration issued at the meeting's close was devoid of bold initiatives, dealing mostly with agricultural questions, border crossings and vague environmental goals. Absent were specific proposals on changing immigration or drug laws, by far the highest profile border issues.

The governors are aware that it is the federal government, not the states, that is responsible for policies on drugs, immigration and energy. Moreover, governors strive to avoid creating controversy in meetings designed mainly to generate goodwill.

But when asked individually, governors prove only too willing to express opinions, some of which go against the grain politically.

Fernando Canales Clariond of Nuevo Leon, for example, said the Mexican Constitution should be amended to allow greater foreign involvement in energy exploration, a nervy proposal in a country where national sovereignty is wrapped up in the state-run oil monopoly, Pemex.

Tamaulipas Gov. Tomas Yarrington, the meeting's host, and Sonora Gov. Armando Lopez Nogales both proposed radical steps, possibly some sort of state of emergency, to alert both nations to the scarcity of water in the border area.

"There needs to be some regional scheme because the water is the common denominator that ties us all together," Lopez said. "We need to see water for the urgent issue that it is."

Of 10 border governors--four on the U.S. side and six from Mexico--only California's Gray Davis was absent from this year's meeting.

The reason Davis begged off, California officials said, was his total absorption in the state's electricity crisis.

Arizona Gov. Hull's idea to create a new type of temporary guest worker permit as a means of stemming the rising toll of migrant deaths reflects immigration's high priority in any binational discussion.

Fourteen Mexicans died of dehydration last month in 115-degree heat in the Arizona desert more than 35 miles from the nearest highway, Hull said. Desert deaths have risen as tightened border patrols in urban areas have sent migrants farther into wilderness areas to make border crossings.

"The problem of migration has touched us in a profound way not seen before," Hull told reporters.

President Bush, in a taped greeting to the governors, said he and Mexican President Vicente Fox have met several times to find ways to, among other things, ensure "safe and orderly migration." That language was hailed by some Mexicans here as a sign that U.S. resistance to a more open border is crumbling.

At least two bills moving through the U.S. Congress would liberalize immigration law by allowing freer migration and by helping formalize the status of Mexican residents in the United States.

Another topic of concern was energy, with most Mexican governors voicing support for greater foreign involvement in energy development and delivery. Nuevo Leon's Canales said that the 400 new natural gas wells being drilled this year in northern Mexico are not enough to supply Mexico's energy needs, and that foreign capital is needed.

Baja California Gov. Alejandro Gonzalez Alcocer said he supports foreign energy investment in his state, confirming that two huge liquid natural gas terminals costing hundreds of millions of dollars apiece may be built in Baja.

By the end of this year, new Baja power plants will be exporting 500 megawatts of electricity to California, enough to light 500,000 households. Baja currently exports 50 megawatts.

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