SACRAMENTO — Mexican President Vicente Fox on Wednesday challenged Californians to extend affordable college education opportunities to Mexicans who have established homes in the state, in recognition of the migrants' contribution to its prosperity.
With the same frankness that last year helped him end seven decades of one-party rule in Mexico, Fox addressed a joint session of the Legislature with a confident appeal to build on the improved relations between Mexico and California.
"We should conceive of the border more as a joining line than as a dividing line," Fox declared to warm applause. "Let us make the proximity of our peoples into a source of solutions instead of a generator of controversies."
While Fox and Gov. Gray Davis were hailing the symbols of unity between their peoples, Cabinet-level officials were signing significant environmental accords that translate the renewed friendship into practical results.
The agreements will create cross-border programs to reduce air pollution in Tijuana, improve waste-water treatment in major cities along the Baja California border and work jointly to protect the Gulf of California, which Mexicans call the Sea of Cortes. Some of those negotiations had been stalled for two years, Mexican officials said, until Fox took office and pushed them forward.
Fox, on his first visit to the United States since his December inauguration, appeared moved by the warm reception he received, saying, "You make me feel at home with this welcome."
Still, Fox did not shy away in his speech from one of the major irritants in relations between California and Mexico: He urged that Mexicans living in California and seeking legal residency be granted access to the state's college system at the much lower in-state tuition rates. Davis, who sat behind Fox on the dais, has opposed such a policy as unaffordable.
Fox noted that Mexico's Nobel laureate in chemistry, Mario Molina, graduated from the California system--"positive proof of what can be accomplished with the right opportunities. Help us to give these people access to the virtues of California's excellent education system."
The Mexican president--a rancher, farmer and businessman from the state of Guanajuato--lauded the contribution of Mexicans in California, saying they "have not only made the state's current prosperity possible, but through their traditions and customs they have also given greater vitality to the rich and diverse culture of California."
Davis, who has helped heal the wounds in the cross-border relationship that festered during former Gov. Pete Wilson's administration, acknowledged that differences exist but praised Fox for his commitment to Mexican migrants. In the past, Mexican governments have ignored or even disdained those who left home to earn a living in the United States.
"I feel very proud of the way President Fox conducts himself in our country," Davis told a joint news conference. "He always feels very proud of the achievements of Californians of Mexican descent. This is the start of a new relationship between the president of Mexico and the people who were born in Mexico but migrated to the United States."
Wednesday night, Fox flew to San Jose to tour Silicon Valley businesses. He plans to meet with Mexican migrant workers in Fresno this morning before heading to Los Angeles for a town hall meeting and a dinner with Hollywood heavyweights.
Fox, whose nation is selling California 50 megawatts of electric power, repeated his commitment to make more surplus electricity available to the state when possible, but he dimmed hopes of a significant increase any time soon. Noting the political sensitivities in Mexico, Fox said such energy sales do not undermine sovereignty and would not come at the expense of his nation's own needs.
Assemblyman Roderick Wright (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the lower house's Energy Committee, said he does not expect Mexico to solve the state's energy problems.
"I'm encouraged that he wants to continue to help us, but as he said, he ain't the solution to our problem," Wright said. "Basically, he's giving us whatever surplus electricity he has already."
Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks), who met Fox several years ago, said Fox's speech left him tremendously optimistic about the possibilities of increased partnerships with Mexico. He said Fox's words were warm and showed no lingering hostility from Proposition 187--which sought to limit public services for undocumented immigrants--or the other antagonistic political fights of the early 1990s.
"President Fox is going to be great," Hertzberg said. "He saw what Florida has done in establishing closer ties to Latin America, and he thinks we can achieve similar relationships, benefiting not only our economies but our cultures."