WASHINGTON — President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox on Thursday stressed the need for continued cooperation on border security, but some immigration experts say they're pessimistic that the two can make any headway while the U.S. administration's attention is focused on terrorism.
Fox made the brief, hastily scheduled visit to the White House to demonstrate support for the Bush administration's anti-terrorism campaign.
Coming three weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, however, the visit underscored how much the climate has changed since Fox was here four weeks ago for a state visit that put the two nations' differences over immigration into sharp focus.
Guest-worker programs, legalization of undocumented immigrants, amnesty for immigrants and open borders have been pushed down significantly on the Bush administration's agenda, replaced by measures that include restricting terrorists' access to the United States.
If any steps are taken on immigration issues now, said Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy at the Latino advocacy group the National Council of La Raza, they probably would deal with tightening restrictions on the visas that allow tourists and students to enter the United States.
Questions about providing Mexican workers access to jobs in the U.S. are unlikely to be addressed, she said.
Before Sept. 11, immigration had appeared to be moving to the top of the political and diplomatic agenda, driven by the confluence of pressure from Fox, Bush's own interest in the subject stemming from his six years as governor of a border state, and growing concerns in Congress.
But the White House is now focused almost exclusively on the many facets of the anti-terrorism campaign, and Congress has pared its agenda to only the most pressing issues, many tied to the economy.
In their brief comments Thursday, Bush and Fox made an effort to keep immigration at the forefront--even in the context of a diplomatic visit built around fighting terrorism.
Suggesting he won't be distracted, Bush said, "We need to cooperate on security matters along our border, which we are."
Fox, who visited New York City later in the day, said his administration is working daily on border, customs and migration issues, "each of the subjects that have to do with security. We will be side by side in your efforts to defeat terrorism in the world."
But Rep. Thomas G. Tancredo (R-Colo.) said there is little that Bush can do in the current political and national security climate to resolve immigration issues.
Fox, on the other hand, "could be incredibly gracious," Tancredo said, "and say to President Bush, 'In light of the serious problems faced on the porous border and the possibility that people with malevolent intentions can get through, the United States and Mexico could seal the border.' "
Mexican officials have emphasized that moving forward on immigration issues would contribute to improved border security by controlling the flow of migrants.
Mexican Foreign Secretary Jorge Castaneda told U.S. reporters in Mexico before the trip: "In all our discussions [with U.S. officials], one of the leitmotifs is that we have to keep to our agenda and move it forward. . . . We want to enlarge, enhance and broaden that agenda to include the security issues, and they do too."
Castaneda, whose unstinting support for Washington's anti-terrorism campaign has sparked sometimes vitriolic criticism in Mexico, said progress on immigration reform is "more relevant, more pressing than ever" in the wake of the attacks.
There is no indication that any of the terrorists who carried out the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon entered the United States through the lengthy Mexican or Canadian borders.
But at least one of the men believed to have been a hijacker is thought to have entered the U.S. on a student visa, prompting fresh calls for restrictions on these visas.
Citing federal government statistics, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington policy research organization, said Mexicans make up 36% of all international students in the United States. Tighter restrictions on those visas, the council said, would further complicate efforts to sort out U.S.-Mexican immigration issues.
Gerstenzang reported from Washington and Smith from Mexico City.