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Fox Pushes for Migrants Pact by End of Year

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Mexican President Vicente Fox insisted Wednesday that his nation and the United States must and can reach agreement on immigration reform by the end of this year, throwing a surprising challenge at President Bush on the first day of the Mexican leader’s state visit.

Invoking the plight of his citizens with fervor, Fox declared during a highly choreographed welcome ceremony at the White House that legalizing the status of illegal Mexican workers can be achieved. He made no mention of the fierce opposition to such a move in Congress, including among members of Bush’s own party.

Fox’s demand unexpectedly put his U.S. counterpart on the spot and could complicate Bush’s efforts on the issue.

Bush conceded in recent days that no breakthrough agreements would be announced during Fox’s three-day visit. Bush embraced a long-range view of immigration reform, calling it “a complex issue.”

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Fox’s remarks on immigration came near the end of the colorful South Lawn ceremony and overshadowed an array of advances on such cross-border issues as environmental cleanup, education exchange programs and cooperation on drug trafficking and organized crime.

Fox is making the first state visit by a foreign leader in Bush’s presidency, and America’s 43rd president did not stint on pomp and circumstance for his friend and fellow rancher.

The 40-minute opening ceremony--held on a gorgeous late-summer morning with a breeze that had many small U.S. and Mexican flags flapping in unison--included a review of the troops and a 21-gun salute.

Then Bush and Fox delivered brief remarks.

Bush declared that the United States “has no more important relationship in the world than the one we have with Mexico” and said the two nations have a chance to build “a new century of the Americas.”

“Our nations have an historic opportunity to build an authentic partnership grounded in trust and in freedom,” Bush said. “We’re building a relationship that is unique in the world, a relationship of unprecedented closeness and cooperation. And this visit is a milestone on that journey.”

Bush avoided the immigration issue, simply citing “migration” in a litany of bilateral concerns.

But as he followed his host to the lectern, Fox tackled the issue.

“The time has come to give migrants and their communities their proper place in the history of our bilateral relations. Both our countries owe them a great deal,” Fox said as Bush looked on stoically.

“And working together, both of us can build new conditions of fairness for them, as well as for the development and prosperity of our two nations. For this reason, we must, and we can, reach an agreement on migration before the end of this very year,” said the Mexican leader.

Such an agreement, Fox said, would ensure legalization of Mexican immigrants by the end of his term of office--and at the same time would “make sure that there are no Mexicans who have not entered this country legally in the United States, and that those Mexicans who come into the country do so with proper documents.”

That implied that in return for a deal legalizing existing migrants and creating a flow of legal temporary workers, Mexico would somehow end the flow of undocumented immigrants leaving for the U.S. by the end of Fox’s term. That would be a major concession from Mexico, which in the past has argued it cannot constitutionally limit the free movement of Mexican citizens who decide to leave the country.

Fox’s single, six-year term ends in late 2006; Bush’s current term ends in January 2005.

‘A Friend Will Always Be a Brother’

Like Bush, Fox talked about a relationship based on trust, and he ended his remarks by quoting Benjamin Franklin: “A brother may not be a friend, but a friend will always be a brother.” Then he turned to Bush and called him “my friend.”

The migration negotiations--set in motion by Bush and Fox in February during their first meeting as heads of state, held at the Mexican leader’s ranch in Guanajuato state--have apparently stalled on two conflicting visions.

Conservative Republicans are eager for a guest worker program that would invite in 200,000 or more temporary Mexican workers to fill low-skilled jobs, but this faction opposes legalization of the more than 3 million Mexicans already believed to be living and working illegally in the U.S.

A largely Democratic and labor-backed coalition supports legalization and has opposed a guest worker program, saying it would drive down wages of working-poor Americans.

So far the Bush administration hasn’t found a salable compromise that reconciles those opposing views in Congress, which will have to approve legislation on the issue. The Mexicans want to get a bill before Congress early in the new year, before the midterm U.S. election heats up in 2002.

After the arrival ceremony, Bush and Fox met in the Oval Office and then presided over a joint Cabinet meeting, during which officials from both nations took turns briefing the presidents on the issues of crime, agriculture, water, energy, immigration and foreign policy.

“We have had an extraordinary meeting,” Bush said afterward. “What I came away with is that the spirit of cooperation has never been stronger; that not only do the president and I consider ourselves friends, but our Cabinet officials have gotten to know each other on a personal basis. And the dialogue is very important and very frank.”

During the earlier South Lawn ceremony, Bush also offered moral support to Fox, who is under fire at home for the slow progress he is making on economic revival and social reforms.

“The United States is proud to stand beside you as your partner and as your friend,” Bush told his guest.

The president and First Lady Laura Bush hosted Fox and his wife, Martha Sahagun de Fox, at a state dinner in the White House. The couple were married in July.

Today, Fox will address a joint session of Congress. He and Bush then will travel together to Toledo, Ohio, to highlight the contributions made in the U.S. by people of Mexican origin and other Latinos.

The Bush administration was a “little surprised” by Fox’s call for an immigration agreement by the end of the year, a senior U.S. official said.

“We’re willing to work hard and try to work quickly. It’s certainly not out of the question, but we have to see if we can figure out from both sides what we can get. We’ve emphasized, as recently as yesterday, that we have to do it right, not in a hurry,” added the official, who asked not to be named because of the diplomatic sensitivities of the issue.

At the White House, under relentless questioning by reporters, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice tacitly acknowledged that Fox’s public remarks were unexpected.

“We knew he was going to bring it up during this meeting. . . . Did he clear our remarks and we clear his? No.”

As for a specific timetable, Rice said: “We’re going to now have follow-on discussions with the Mexicans about how we proceed from here. . . . The progress that we’re making is obviously going to be step by step.”

‘A Breakthrough in and of Itself’

Although there is no substantive progress on the issue, Rice described as “a breakthrough in and of itself” that the presidents of the U.S. and Mexico are “sitting down to systematically talk abut migration and how to deal with this issue.”

Robert A. Pastor, a longtime Mexico analyst at Emory University in Atlanta, said Fox may be underestimating the opposition in the U.S. to immigration reform.

“The Mexicans think this issue is easier than it really is,” he said.

Pastor also said that migration may be the wrong issue for Fox to spend so much political capital on. “It is central in a symbolic way but not a substantive way,” Pastor said.

More important, he argued, is finding ways for the United States to support development projects in Mexican states that are prone to migration so that decent jobs are available and young Mexicans don’t have to immigrate in the first place. That was originally one of Mexico’s major negotiating points, but it has largely fallen off the agenda due to U.S. resistance to funding the development projects.

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Times staff writer Robin Wright contributed to this report.

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MORE INSIDE

Fight looms: Congress gears up for battle over immigrant status. A18

Hot ticket: This state dinner was more prestigious than usual. A19


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