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Frustration Marks Fox, Bush Talks

While the Mexican president pushes to revive negotiations on an immigration deal, the U.S. leader is preoccupied with Iraq.

October 27, 2002|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

CABO SAN LUCAS, Mexico — After four meetings in 20 months, the once-promising courtship between Presidents George Bush and Vicente Fox is falling into a familiar pattern.

Again on Saturday, the Mexican leader stressed the urgency of easing the flow of Mexican migrants to the United States. Again, Bush replied that he wants to deal with the issue -- "in a way that recognizes reality and in a way that treats the Mexican citizens who are in the United States with respect."

"We did have a very good discussion, but I'm not surprised," Bush told reporters afterward, with his fellow rancher-statesman seated at his side. "After all, we're such good friends."

But again, to the frustration of Mexican officials, Bush gave no indication of how or when he planned to engage with Fox's biggest diplomatic goal, an immigration deal with the U.S. And again, it was in part because Bush was preoccupied with an enemy half a world away -- this time, Iraq.

The 40-minute meeting here, on the sidelines of a summit of Pacific Rim leaders, was billed by Mexican officials as a bid to relaunch Fox's proposals. It was the first meeting in seven months between ideological kindred spirits who took office within weeks of each other nearly two years ago.

Fox wants Washington to expand permanent visas and guest-worker programs for Mexicans and to give legal status to about 3.5 million undocumented Mexican migrants who live and work in the U.S.

The two countries had just pledged to negotiate those proposals last year when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks derailed them, shifting Bush's focus from open borders to the need for stringent security at home. Support for migration reform virtually disappeared in Washington.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell acknowledged the setback Saturday but told reporters: "As we get to a more normal life and as we bring our homeland into a firmer basis of security ... we might be in a better position next year to deal with some of the concerns that Americans have and Congress has had with respect to migration."

But in the meeting, Bush balked at Fox's invitation to make a state visit to Mexico next year. The idea, Fox said, would be to use the 10th anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement to undertake a sweeping, high-level review of U.S.-Mexican relations and sketch out "a big vision of where we want to go."

"Maybe we'll be at war," Bush replied, according to a person in the room.

"If you're at war, you're at war," Fox reportedly said. "But right now you're not at war, so think about it."

That exchange deepened a feeling among Mexican officials that their bid for attention in Washington may be doomed by a war on Iraq. The frustration was almost palpable Saturday as the two leaders dispensed with their usual back-slapping. Fox made no public remark welcoming Bush to Mexico or mentioning their friendship.

In an interview late Saturday, Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda said that although Mexico does not feel rejected, "there's a sense that there's no focus except on Iraq, and I suppose that's understandable. But the [U.S.-Mexico] relationship is not moving forward in the broad sense that we want it to move forward."

Other Mexican officials say the Fox government does not intend to wait for the White House. Soon after next month's U.S. congressional elections, they plan to launch a lobbying effort for Fox's migration proposals with lawmakers, religious organizations, labor unions, business leaders, and state and local governments.

The campaign will stress the need for cheap labor in the U.S. and for safer and more humane conditions for the Mexicans willing to provide it. Since 1995, at least 2,200 Mexicans have died trying to cross illegally into the United States, and Mexican officials say the flow has not slowed since the U.S. Border Patrol tightened its operations after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Fox said he told Bush that migration reform was becoming even more urgent. Mexican farmers will be hit by competition from U.S. food imports after Jan. 1, when the last remnants of import duties disappear under terms of the free-trade agreement.

Mexico also fears that newly enacted U.S. farm subsidies will inflict additional harm on growers here, fueling more migration.

Fox said Saturday that talks between the two countries on agricultural duties were making "important progress" and that there was "complete agreement" with Bush on how to cushion the blow to the Mexican countryside.

But after nearly two years of such hopeful rhetoric, it's clear that Fox has given up measuring progress by deadlines.

"A problem so transcendent as migration merits much discussion and the dedication of a lot of time," Fox told reporters. "Time and circumstances have not permitted us to advance at the speed we wanted. But we have not abandoned our interest in tackling this issue, and we're looking for a more propitious moment to move it forward."

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