Fox's Efforts to Aid Migrants Garner Praise, U.S. Criticism

Times Staff Writer

Before he abandoned his native Mexico and crossed illegally into the United States, Rafael Aldana was not getting much help from President Vicente Fox.

A few months after Fox took office three years ago, a recession squeezed Aldana out of his job at a copper smelting plant. Then cheap Chinese imports ruined the tiny sewing shop he and his wife set up in their home in Xilotepec, a blue-collar suburb of Mexico City.

But since turning up in Santa Fe last year, the Aldanas have benefited from a vigorous campaign by the Fox administration to make life easier for millions of illegal Mexican immigrants in the United States.

From the Mexican Consulate here, Aldana, his wife and three children have each received a matricula consular, a fingerprinted photo card that, thanks to Mexican lobbying, is accepted as personal identification by the state of New Mexico.

The card has helped Aldana, 35, get a New Mexico driver's license and open a bank account to deposit the $280 he takes home each week for washing dishes at a Santa Fe restaurant. Through the bank, he sends money home to his parents and in-laws -- and thus helps sustain Mexico's economy -- for a smaller fee than wire transfer companies charge.

Fox's activism on behalf of Mexico's estimated 25 million expatriates, which brought the president to the American Southwest for three days this week, has produced more benefits for Mexicans than many of his initiatives at home. It has also opened him to criticism in the United States that he is exporting problems he cannot solve.

"At least he has not forgotten us," said Aldana, the dishwasher, as he hoisted his 4-year-old daughter onto his shoulders Wednesday for a glimpse of Fox in Santa Fe's central plaza.

Like a politician tending remote constituents, Fox won frenzied applause from Mexican communities in the capital cities of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. At his final rally Thursday at the University of Texas in Austin, he responded to a flag-waving welcome by quipping: "I hope all this affection, emotion and respect for me comes out on television in Mexico."

"We want Mexicans to have new opportunities at home, and we are doing everything possible to achieve this," he said in Phoenix on Tuesday. "But we also have close to our hearts those who leave Mexico to look for new horizons, and we are working so that your human rights, your labor rights, are respected."

To American civic and business leaders who demanded to know what he was doing to keep more Mexicans at home, Fox answered with proposals for joint projects to ease the flow of commerce and investment.

And in the strongest terms he has ever used on the subject, he vowed in a speech to New Mexico's Legislature to "wage a great battle and finish off those criminals" who profit from the flow of illegal Mexican migration into the United States.

The chief purpose of Fox's trip was to build support among mayors, governors and lawmakers for proposals to expand guest worker programs for Mexicans and legalize some of the estimated 3.5 million undocumented Mexican workers now in the United States.

Mexico's problems followed Fox here. Knots of demonstrators in all three cities demanded action to stop the unsolved slayings of scores of young women in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, near El Paso, Texas. Disrupting Fox's speech here, they chanted "No more killings!" until he agreed to meet with the mothers of two slain 17-year-olds.

Talks between the Fox and Bush administrations on immigration, stalled since the United States' focus turned to security after the Sept. 11 attacks, are expected to resume in Washington next week.

During the last two years, Mexico's 45 consulates in the United States have worked quietly to issue more than 1.5 million matriculas to illegal Mexican immigrants. Dozens of state and local police departments, government offices and banks across the country accept the cards as a valid ID. Thanks in part to bank accounts opened with the cards, Mexicans are sending home a record $14 billion in remittances this year.

Along with its spreading use, a backlash against the matriculas has grown. Critics say the cards are prone to fraud and amount to a backdoor amnesty for illegal immigrants.

New Mexico and 13 other states allow such immigrants to get driver's licenses. Aldana is one of 7,000 undocumented migrants so far to receive a New Mexico driver's license.

Fox held up New Mexico's example in speeches in Arizona and Texas this week, hoping to persuade those states and others to follow suit. He called on U.S. states to lower tuition for illegal immigrants at public universities to rates paid by state residents, as Texas has done.

Meeting with Fox, however, Texas Gov. Rick Perry rejected the use of matriculas as a valid way to obtain a Texas driver's license until Mexico can prove the identity of each cardholder through a central birth registry. Fox told reporters that he would work to alleviate Perry's misgivings but later dismissed them in his speech at the university.

"In Mexico there are no terrorists, let's be clear!" he exclaimed. "We work with much effort to assure that our territory is not a passageway for terrorists. And our beloved compatriots who are here are honest working people who do a lot for the economy of Texas and the United States."

The driver's license issue is also controversial in California. A bill signed by Gov. Gray Davis would allow immigrants who entered the country illegally to get a driver's license starting Jan. 1, but Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger has vowed to seek repeal of the law.

This was Fox's first substantive visit to the United States since September 2001. Mexican officials said he would like to return to California, scene of a tour that year, as soon as Schwarzenegger takes office and extends an invitation. Speaking to reporters Monday, Fox garbled the actor's name -- it came out Schwarzenberger -- but said he hoped the two would get along.

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