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THE NATION

Bush, Fox Put Their Rift to Rest

October 21, 2003|Maura Reynolds and Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writers

BANGKOK, Thailand — President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox, putting an icy rift over Iraq behind them, met Monday for the first time in a year and agreed that their governments would try again next month to tackle the touchy issue of immigration.

The two neighbors traveled halfway around the world for a 30-minute reconciliation on the sidelines of the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in the Thai capital. Their meeting, described by a U.S. official as "relaxed and very warm," ended with Bush inviting Fox to visit his Texas ranch in the coming months.

Both sides acknowledged that reaching an immigration accord -- Fox's top foreign policy goal -- would be difficult. The Mexican leader wants the United States to expand permanent visas and guest-worker programs for Mexicans and give legal status to about 3.5 million undocumented Mexican migrants who live and work in the United States.

U.S. officials have been reluctant to legalize immigrants who entered the country surreptitiously. There has been some support in the administration and Congress for increasing permits for temporary Mexican workers, but even that proposal fell off Bush's agenda after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks shifted his focus to border security.

"They talked about the importance of dealing with this sensitive issue sensitively and recognizing that they want to do it right," national security advisor Condoleezza Rice said after the leaders met. "They did not talk about timetables."

But Fox said he and Bush agreed that Cabinet officials of both countries would try to set a schedule for resolving the issue during the annual meeting of their Binational Commission, set for Nov. 12 in Washington. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez will lead the delegations.

"This is surely going to require a great quantity of discussions, dialogue, negotiations," Fox said. "But the important thing is that both presidents are returning to the bilateral agenda, with great enthusiasm."

Fox and Bush became famous amigos after each took office nearly three years ago, but their meetings became less frequent after Sept. 11, 2001. Fox canceled a visit to Bush's ranch last year to protest the execution of a Mexican national in Texas, and their friendship chilled further after Mexico refused to use its vote on the U.N. Security Council to support the war in Iraq.

Tensions have eased in recent days. Before the Security Council voted last week to authorize a multinational peacekeeping force for Iraq and urged international participation in rebuilding the country, American officials leaned hard on Mexico to endorse the proposal. It did, helping the resolution pass unanimously.

Mexico's vote followed a telephone call from Bush offering to meet Fox in Bangkok. Bush called "simply to say, 'I'm looking forward to seeing you. What happened has happened,' " Rice told reporters.

On Monday, Bush thanked Fox for Mexico's vote, and the two moved on to immigration and other cross-border issues. "I think it was a relaxed and very warm discussion," Rice said. "They're looking forward to meeting again."

Fox is often criticized at home for staking too much on his relationship with the American leader. At the same time, Bush has come under attack from Democratic presidential hopefuls for appearing to shun Fox and his immigration proposals.

"Both presidents understand that they have to make an effort to convey the sense that relations are on an even keel and moving forward," former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda said Monday. "It is in the advantage of neither to have this impression of a distancing continue."

Mexican officials said a meeting at Bush's ranch was unlikely until after the gathering of U.S. and Mexican Cabinet officials next month in Washington.

Although immigration proposals will be high on the agenda in Washington, Rice cautioned Monday that "the post-9/11 environment has made all of this, if anything, more difficult."

Still, Powell said last month that the United States planned to offer ideas that "will demonstrate to the Mexican people and to Americans that we are serious about resolving immigration issues." But only "small successes," he cautioned, could be expected at the beginning.

Derbez told reporters here Monday that Mexico had abandoned the goal -- pursued by Castaneda early in the Fox administration -- of a single, comprehensive accord on the subject.

"We think of this as a jigsaw puzzle, in which ... a migration accord is a series of necessary actions," Derbez said. "And what we are looking for now is, in this series of actions, which ones would be achievable in the short, medium and long term."

He added: "The position of President Bush and of President Fox is that this is a priority ... to seek solutions that little by little put together this big jigsaw puzzle. The fundamental theme expressed by President Bush was: There is a demand for labor in my country, there is a supply of labor in your country, and together we have to find schemes that allow us to put supply and demand together."

Derbez tried to downplay the chill between the two leaders over Iraq. He said Mexico would attend an Iraq donors conference in Madrid this week and offer a package covering health and education as well as technical assistance to organize elections.

*

Reynolds reported from Bangkok and Boudreaux from Mexico City.

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