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Diplomatic Nominee Focuses on Security

May 02, 2003|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush's nominee for top U.S. diplomat in Latin America told Congress on Thursday not to expect major progress on immigration reform, the sorest point in relations between the U.S. and Mexico since early in Bush's term.

Questioned at his Senate confirmation hearing, Roger F. Noriega said the administration continues to focus, as it has since the Sept. 11 attacks, on fighting terrorism and securing its borders.

"We have to find ways to make small steps, perhaps, on this [immigration] agenda," said Noriega, who is nominated to be assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.

The Mexican government, Catholic bishops and other groups have been prodding Washington to resume its efforts to work out the kind of broad immigration reform on the table before Sept. 11. The two sides had been talking about a program that would have given amnesty to some illegal immigrants in the United States. The U.S. would also have set up a temporary worker program for Mexicans, and Mexico would have tightened border enforcement.

Some analysts have speculated that the administration might look more favorably on immigration liberalization as the 2004 presidential election approached, and Bush's political advisors focused on the need to attract Latino voters.

But the comments of Noriega, who is expected to easily win confirmation, indicated an ambitious new effort is unlikely. Some leading senators on the Foreign Relations Committee expressed impatience with the administration's seeming lack of interest.

Noriega, however, insisted that the issue "continues to be a priority for the Mexicans and for us."

As an example of "small steps," he cited the way Mexican consulates are offering identification papers to Mexicans living illegally in the United States to make it easier for them to conduct business. Noriega, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States, also cited the efforts of the bilateral Partnership for Prosperity, an effort begun by Bush to strengthen the Mexican economy.

The administration's effort for immigration reform stalled in part because of opposition from conservatives in Congress.

Acknowledging this, Noriega said the administration will feel out lawmakers on any policy proposals, "so that we would know what the market would bear up here, frankly."

But some lawmakers suggested that the administration needed to take the lead on the issue.

Committee Chairman Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) argued that despite its preoccupation with terrorism, the administration needs to find a way to focus on an issue that is "imperative."

"Life goes on," Lugar said. "We ought to be capable of doing several things at the same time."

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) also called on the administration to move forward on the immigration issue.

He said that when Bush took office, the president stressed his commitment to the hemisphere, and "there seemed real promise that some of the most daunting issues between the United States and our closest allies would be dealt with in a comprehensive way."

But since then, "the U.S.-Mexican relationship and relations with other nations, in my view, in the hemisphere have been pushed to the back burner," he said.

Dodd also strongly criticized the administration for delaying deliberations on a free trade pact with Chile, widely interpreted as punishment for Chile's opposition to U.S. plans to take military action against Iraq.

Noriega, whose grandparents came to Kansas as Mexican immigrants, is a former aide to retired Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) who was known in the Senate as a strong proponent of a conservative brand of foreign policy.

But as U.S. representative to the OAS, he has drawn praise from some moderate and liberal voices for working well with Latin American leaders.

"He came away widely respected as an effective ambassador," said Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank.

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