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Mexico's Fox Pushes Immigration Reform on Southwest Visit

November 05, 2003|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — After flying over a desert where hundreds of his compatriots have died trying to sneak into the United States, Mexican President Vicente Fox began a personal campaign Tuesday to sell Americans on reforms that would make crossing the border legal for more Mexican migrants in search of work.

Reviving an effort disrupted by the Sept. 11 attacks, Fox began a three-day swing through the U.S. Southwest by telling Arizona's political leaders that an overhaul of U.S. immigration laws, his top foreign policy priority, would be in the economic interests of both countries.

In private meetings with Gov. Janet Napolitano, Arizona lawmakers and mayors, Fox said he was seeking an expanded U.S. program for Mexican guest workers and legal status for the more than 3.5 million undocumented Mexican migrants who live and work in this country.

"We need deep analysis and dialogue and an action plan so we can build a framework that guarantees legal, safe and orderly migration," Fox said at a news conference afterward.

Napolitano, sitting at Fox's side, agreed, saying U.S. border states "bear the brunt of an immigration policy that does not recognize the need for the effective flow of working people back and forth across the border."

Mexican officials said Fox's visit to Arizona, New Mexico and Texas -- to be followed next month by appearances in Illinois and Michigan -- was timed to coincide with the start of the yearlong countdown to U.S. elections. They said it was meant to stir debate over immigration as a campaign issue and kick-start long-stalled talks with the Bush administration on the issue.

By wading into that debate as an advocate, Fox opened himself to criticism that he is meddling in a neighbor's affairs. Several dozen protesters, evidence of growing hostility toward immigrants in Arizona, chanted, "Seal the border!" as Fox arrived to speak to a packed auditorium of 3,000 cheering Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the Phoenix Civic Plaza.

"The president of Mexico seems to be promoting illegal immigration and taking pride in the fact that his people are up here benefiting from our job market and social welfare," said Randy Graf, a Republican state legislator. "Is that a good neighbor?" Graf is campaigning to add to next November's Arizona ballot an initiative, similar to California's Proposition 187, that would cut off Medicaid and other social benefits for undocumented migrants.

Fox got a generally warm welcome as the second foreign head of state -- after Pope John Paul II in 1987 -- ever to set foot in Arizona. Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimza handed him the keys to the city, and the state's most powerful entrepreneurs joined the visitor for lunch.

Seeking to downplay his partisan role, Fox told reporters that he was not here to make demands but "talk to our partner, our neighbor, our friend" about "some ideas ... for taking advantage of the great resource our migrants are to both nations."

The border states he is visiting are home to more than 6 million Mexicans and Mexican Americans and have strong business and cultural ties to Mexico. All are grappling with a rise in the criminal smuggling of immigrants across their borders. At the hour Fox landed here, police said, four people were killed on a highway near Phoenix in a shootout involving three speeding vehicles and a group of undocumented migrants, some of whom fled on foot into the desert.

All three states are vigorously debating several immigration proposals put before the U.S. Congress in recent months.

Fox said he was encouraged by three such bills. One, introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), would allow guest-worker visas with limited time periods to undocumented migrants already in the United States. A guest-worker bill backed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) would give undocumented workers a means of obtaining permanent legal residency, levying a $1,500 fine for anyone who has been here illegally.

A third bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) and Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-North Hollywood), would streamline red tape for bringing in agricultural workers and allow an estimated 500,000 undocumented farmworkers to earn legal residency if they worked 100 days during the 12 months before August of this year.

Fox and President Bush had just begun work on a comprehensive immigration reform in September 2001 when terrorist attacks abruptly shifted Washington's focus to border security. But tighter controls have failed to stem the tide of surreptitious crossings from Mexico.

In the year that ended Sept. 30, a record 152 immigrants died trying to slip past U.S. Border Patrol agents in the Arizona desert -- an alarming trend that prompted some of the recent legislation.

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