The State Department on Monday sought to dampen hopes for rapid progress toward a U.S.-Mexico immigration agreement, the most politically sensitive issue on the agenda at Cabinet-level meetings here this week between officials of both countries.
"I do not want to raise expectations," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roger F. Noriega told reporters. "Our immigration laws are made by Congress."
Immigration is a core concern in the relationship between the United States and Mexico, but Noriega indicated that progress was more likely on lesser priorities such as sending Peace Corps volunteers to Mexico for the first time and establishing a homeland security hotline between the two countries.
The meetings, scheduled for Wednesday, are an annual event and are expected to involve 17 Cabinet secretaries from both countries, as well as dozens of lower-ranking officials. This year's gathering comes after a reconciliation between President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox, whose close relationship had cooled after Mexico refused to support the war in Iraq.
Mexican officials have said they are coming to Washington in search of agreement on a timetable for getting immigration reform moving again. Last week, Fox toured three U.S. border states to encourage support for measures that would allow greater numbers of Mexican workers to enter the United States legally and would grant official status to millions of undocumented immigrants already here, a policy framework Bush supported before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks raised concerns about security and immigration rules.
A major immigration reform bill is pending in Congress, but Noriega, asked for his appraisal of the measure, was guarded.
"I can't answer that question," he said.
"I could answer it -- if it was the last thing I wanted to do in government."
The bipartisan bill would grant legal status to as many as 500,000 undocumented farm workers and expand a "guest-worker" program to meet the needs of growers.
Known as the AgJobs bill, the legislation has solid support from lawmakers of both parties in the Senate but has run into opposition in the House. A powerful wing of Republicans who favor curbs on immigration, supported by labor contractors who benefit from the current guest-worker program, is attempting to block the bill.
One of the sessions Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will be attending Wednesday will be devoted solely to immigration. Noriega held out the possibility that the Bush administration might streamline existing guest-worker programs to cut red tape for U.S. employers.
Immigration "is something that is very high on Mexico's agenda, and it's important for us as well," Noriega said. "We need to find ways to make migration safe, legal and orderly."
As for other issues on the table, Peace Corps spokeswoman Barbara Daly said representatives of the two countries had been talking for months about a program that would send volunteers with technical backgrounds, such as computer experts, to Mexico. Traditionally, Mexico has accepted disaster aid from its northern neighbor but has declined development assistance.
"Mexico is interested in information technology, small-business development and science and technology," Daly said. "We have been working with them on a possible program. No agreement has been finalized."