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Bush promises immigration compromise

Times Staff Writers

President Bush wrapped up his Latin American tour Wednesday with a pledge to Mexican President Felipe Calderon that he would seek an accord that straddles the middle ground between amnesty to illegal residents and booting out more than 12 million people.

“Amnesty is not going to fly,” Bush said. “There is not going to be automatic citizenship; it just won’t work. People in the United States don’t support that, and neither do I. Nor will kicking people out of the United States work. It’s not practical.”

Bush said he was optimistic about convincing congressional Republicans that resolving the status of millions of undocumented workers, mostly Mexican, would be in the best interests of U.S. security.

Eliminating hundreds of thousands of illegal border crossings by job-seekers each year would free authorities to concentrate on those smuggling drugs and guns, Bush said.

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Calderon offered an impassioned and personal defense of the more than 10 million Mexicans working north of the border, including some of his extended family.

Responding to a question during a joint news conference, Calderon confirmed that he had relatives working in vegetable fields in the United States, adding, “They probably handle what you eat.” But he said he didn’t know their legal status.

“What I can tell you is that they work and pay their taxes to the government” of the United States, Calderon said. “These are people who respect the United States. These are people who have children, who want these children to be educated with respect for the land where they live and for Mexico.”

Calderon narrowly won election last year with promises of attracting investment and creating jobs that would keep Mexicans home. He echoed that theme Wednesday, noting that half of the residents of his home state of Michoacan were working abroad, part of an expatriate community that last year sent home more than $20 billion.

“We want them to come back,” he said. “We want them to find jobs here in Mexico.”

Bush spoke sympathetically of the plight of men, women and children who embark on the often dangerous border crossing.

“A system that encourages people to sneak across the border is a system that leads to human rights abuses,” Bush said. “It’s a system that allows for the exploitation of citizens who are trying to earn a living for their families.”

But Bush’s low popularity and lame-duck status has sapped the political capital he would need to shepherd immigration reforms through a Democrat-controlled Congress. During his trip, Bush acknowledged that Republicans need to reach a consensus before a deal can go forward.

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Bush praised Calderon’s fight against the Mexican drug cartels that ferry drugs across the border in cars, trucks and planes and through tunnels.

Calderon told Bush Tuesday that he could not win his war on drugs without reductions in U.S. demand for the marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine that move by the ton through his country. The drug trade has overwhelmed and corrupted many local governments and it cost more 2,000 lives in Mexico last year.

Bush on Wednesday acknowledged a responsibility “to convince people to use less drugs.” Calderon said the two men had agreed to better coordinate the fight against organized crime. What increased role the U.S. would play in Mexico was unclear.

“Mexico is obviously a sovereign nation,” Bush said. “But the Mexican government can lay out a plan where the U.S. can be a constructive partner.”

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After two days of talks, Bush affirmed strong ties with Mexico, the United States’ third-largest trading partner..

Mexico was the last stop on Bush’s five-nation visit to Latin America, designed to shore up the United States’ declining image in the region. Many saw the trip as a popularity contest between Bush and leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who shadowed Bush’s weeklong trip with a tour of his own.

Few Latin American commentators said they believed Bush had reversed years of inattention to the region. Many gave the president credit for making the trip, but critics ridiculed the $1.6-billion-a-year U.S. aid package as crumbs compared with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’ oil-funded largesse.

Left-leaning governments in Brazil and Uruguay were clearly pleased with the president’s visit, despite large anti-Bush protests. The leaders of both nations calculated that they could afford some discontent in exchange for the benefits of closer U.S. ties.

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Uruguay’s agriculture and livestock minister, Jose “Pepe” Mujica, an ex-leftist guerrilla, declared his country “much better off than before” after meeting with Bush.

In Brazil, the region’s most populous country and the ninth- largest economy in the world, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was keen to elevate his stature and diminish Chavez’s rising star. Brazil emerged as the chief beneficiary of the trip, with a partnership to develop and produce plant-based fuels.

“Even if the economic issues are not resolved, this was still a diplomatic victory for Lula,” said Rogerio Schmitt, an analyst with the Tendencias consulting firm in Sao Paulo.

The tour may reverberate most strongly in Argentina, where Bush didn’t stop. President Nestor Kirchner was criticized for allowing Chavez to stage a rambunctious anti-Bush rally at a stadium as the U.S. president arrived in Uruguay.

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Some commentators said Chavez’s shrill rhetoric may have alienated moderates.

But Kirchner, whose leftist government has received more than $3 billion in indirect aid from Venezuela, defended himself and Chavez.

“We will always stand in solidarity with ... our Latin American brothers who have helped us,” a defiant Kirchner said.

sam.enriquez@latimes.com

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patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Enriquez reported from Merida and McDonnell from Buenos Aires. Times staff writer Maura Reynolds, traveling with the president, contributed to this report.


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