After flying over a desert where hundreds of his compatriots have died trying to sneak into the United States, Mexican President Vicente Fox began a personal campaign Tuesday to sell Americans on reforms that would make crossing the border legal for more Mexican migrants in search of work.
Reviving an effort disrupted by the Sept. 11 attacks, Fox began a three-day swing through the U.S. Southwest by telling Arizona's political leaders that an overhaul of U.S. immigration laws, his top foreign policy priority, would be in the economic interests of both countries.
In private meetings with Gov. Janet Napolitano, Arizona lawmakers and mayors, Fox said he was seeking an expanded U.S. program for Mexican guest workers and legal status for the more than 3.5 million undocumented Mexican migrants who live and work in this country.
"We need deep analysis and dialogue and an action plan so we can build a framework that guarantees legal, safe and orderly migration," Fox said at a news conference afterward.
Napolitano, sitting at Fox's side, agreed, saying U.S. border states "bear the brunt of an immigration policy that does not recognize the need for the effective flow of working people back and forth across the border."
Mexican officials said Fox's visit to Arizona, New Mexico and Texas -- to be followed next month by appearances in Illinois and Michigan -- was timed to coincide with the start of the yearlong countdown to U.S. elections. They said it was meant to stir debate over immigration as a campaign issue and kick-start long-stalled talks with the Bush administration on the issue.
By wading into that debate as an advocate, Fox opened himself to criticism that he is meddling in a neighbor's affairs. Several dozen protesters, evidence of growing hostility toward immigrants in Arizona, chanted, "Seal the border!" as Fox arrived to speak to a packed auditorium of 3,000 cheering Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the Phoenix Civic Plaza.
"The president of Mexico seems to be promoting illegal immigration and taking pride in the fact that his people are up here benefiting from our job market and social welfare," said Randy Graf, a Republican state legislator. "Is that a good neighbor?" Graf is campaigning to add to next November's Arizona ballot an initiative, similar to California's Proposition 187, that would cut off Medicaid and other social benefits for undocumented migrants.
Fox got a generally warm welcome as the second foreign head of state -- after Pope John Paul II in 1987 -- ever to set foot in Arizona. Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimza handed him the keys to the city, and the state's most powerful entrepreneurs joined the visitor for lunch.
Seeking to downplay his partisan role, Fox told reporters that he was not here to make demands but "talk to our partner, our neighbor, our friend" about "some ideas ... for taking advantage of the great resource our migrants are to both nations."
The border states he is visiting are home to more than 6 million Mexicans and Mexican Americans and have strong business and cultural ties to Mexico. All are grappling with a rise in the criminal smuggling of immigrants across their borders. At the hour Fox landed here, police said, four people were killed on a highway near Phoenix in a shootout involving three speeding vehicles and a group of undocumented migrants, some of whom fled on foot into the desert.
All three states are vigorously debating several immigration proposals put before the U.S. Congress in recent months.
Fox said he was encouraged by three such bills. One, introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), would allow guest-worker visas with limited time periods to undocumented migrants already in the United States. A guest-worker bill backed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) would give undocumented workers a means of obtaining permanent legal residency, levying a $1,500 fine for anyone who has been here illegally.
A third bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) and Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-North Hollywood), would streamline red tape for bringing in agricultural workers and allow an estimated 500,000 undocumented farmworkers to earn legal residency if they worked 100 days during the 12 months before August of this year.
Fox and President Bush had just begun work on a comprehensive immigration reform in September 2001 when terrorist attacks abruptly shifted Washington's focus to border security. But tighter controls have failed to stem the tide of surreptitious crossings from Mexico.
In the year that ended Sept. 30, a record 152 immigrants died trying to slip past U.S. Border Patrol agents in the Arizona desert -- an alarming trend that prompted some of the recent legislation.
"Arizona is a good place to start trying to change the law, because we are the offramp for a growing wave of illegal immigration," said Ray Borane, mayor of the border city of Douglas. "As long as we keep employing them, it makes sense to let more of them come over legally, without having to risk their lives. These deaths are the main issue now. They have to stop."
Fox and Bush, whose famous friendship had cooled over Mexico's refusal to support the war in Iraq, held a brief conciliatory meeting last month and agreed that their governments should renew talks on immigration next week in Washington during the annual meeting of their Binational Commission.
With that modest breakthrough, Fox accepted recent invitations from Napolitano and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, both Democrats, with the aim of lobbying his proposals before the talks. Fox already had an invitation from Republican Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, where he had canceled a scheduled visit last year to protest that state's execution of a Mexican citizen convicted of murder in the slaying of a police officer.
"We should not build up unrealistic expectations," Fox said before leaving Mexico City, echoing recent cautionary remarks by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. "We have to keep our feet on the ground and be careful because we have had months without any advances."
Some U.S. political analysts expect one or more immigration bills to pass in the coming months as Democrats and Republicans woo Latino voters, who consistently tell pollsters that they favor a policy of allowing undocumented workers to gain legal residency. Arizona's Legislature recently approved a declaration supporting a future guest-worker program for Mexican migrants.
"The momentum for immigration reform that we had before Sept. 11 is coming back, and we should take advantage of it," said Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who is co-sponsoring McCain's guest-worker bill and met Tuesday with Fox. "This is not only good policy, it's good politics."
But Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, said Bush would risk alienating core Republicans by supporting any bill that would bring in more immigrants. He noted that 70% of Arizonans polled in September said they would vote for the proposed cutoff of social services to illegal immigrants if it got on the ballot.
"There is a real possibility that the perception of Mexican interference in American domestic politics could backfire on Fox, ... that his lobbying will turn a lot of people off," Krikorian said.
Dina Rose, a Scottsdale real estate agent who organized Tuesday's protest, said she wanted to tell Fox that illegal immigrants are a burden on taxpayers and take jobs away from Americans, but she was barred from the Civic Plaza. "They told us it was only for the Mexican community," she said.