The Bush administration and the Mexican government Wednesday pledged to revive efforts to secure an immigration agreement through a "step by step" process that could take well into next year to bear fruit.
After a series of high-level meetings between the two countries, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his Mexican counterpart, Luis Ernesto Derbez, offered no specific immigration proposals but said the time had come to go back to work on the issue.
The pledge comes as several immigration reform bills, all introduced this year, are pending in Congress.
"Now that we are on the other side of [the Sept. 11 attacks], we are looking for a way to move forward step by step to make sure that we can have ... migration that is safe, legal and orderly," Powell said at a news conference.
Derbez said the two countries are laying the foundation for a new immigration policy.
"The old design does not operate," Derbez said. "We are now making a new design."
Mexicans represent about 60% of the estimated 8 million to 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, according to U.S. government figures. Two years ago, President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox floated a proposal to grant legal status to qualified immigrants, create an expanded guest worker program and crack down on illegal migration. The initiative collapsed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but interest in an immigration agreement has begun to build again in Congress.
The annual U.S.-Mexico talks marked the emergence of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge as a player in the complex relationship between the two countries. His newly created department is responsible for border security and is said to be reluctant to rush into any immigration agreement. Ridge and his Mexican counterpart, Santiago Creel, announced what appeared to be a series of confidence-building steps.
The two agreed to establish a secure telephone hotline for emergencies and commissioned several task forces to deal with a range of border issues. Ridge accepted Creel's invitation to visit Mexico in February.
Observers were divided as to the meetings' effect on the immigration agenda.
"If you are a hard-nosed analyst, and your question is 'Where's the beef?' they did not serve any beef today," said Demetrios Papademetriou, co-director of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington research organization that studies immigration. "The administration has clearly decided not to waste one iota of political capital on this issue."
But Teresa Brown, who specializes in immigration issues for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the two secretaries' statements should be taken "at face value."
"I think this is a very good signal," said Brown. "This is not something easy. This isn't something you can do quickly. The immigration debate is going to be on the calendar next year." The Chamber favors an immigration agreement to ensure the supply of labor to a range of industries, from construction to hotels.
The legislation pending in Congress that has picked up the most support is the so-called AgJobs bill, which would expand a guest worker program for farm labor and make about 500,000 undocumented agricultural workers already in the U.S. eligible for legal status. Republican and Democratic backers of the bill are hoping to pass it this year.
Another proposal, by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), would create a much larger guest worker program, open to all industries. It would allow undocumented immigrants to become eligible for legal status after paying a $1,500 fine.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) has also proposed an open-ended guest worker program. However, under Cornyn's legislation, illegal immigrants would have to leave the United States to apply for official status.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a leading spokesman for his party on immigration, is drafting a comprehensive reform proposal and is a co-author of the agriculture bill.
Powell said the Bush administration will also review existing immigration programs to see if there are actions that can be taken without congressional approval to cut red tape. Among the possibilities would be clearing a backlog of applications for legal residency from Mexican citizens and simplifying cumbersome rules for current guest worker programs.
Separately on Wednesday, the two countries signed an agreement that would allow Peace Corps volunteers to serve in Mexico for the first time in the program's 42-year history. Mexico is seeking volunteers with a background in technology and small business development.