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Bush, Fox Get Neighborly Back at the Ranch

The president shows his Mexican counterpart Texas hospitality as they seek to mend fences. Immigration, security, water are on the agenda.

March 06, 2004|Maura Reynolds and Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writers

CRAWFORD, Texas — Eighteen months after relations derailed in disputes over Iraq and the death penalty, Mexican President Vicente Fox arrived Friday for a two-day visit with President Bush at his Texas ranch, a trip designed largely to signal that the relationship is back on track.

The two leaders -- both dressed in blue jeans, boots and open-collared shirts -- exchanged greetings in Spanish after Fox and his wife, Marta Sahagun, stepped out of the Marine helicopter that ferried them to the ranch. "El presidente," Bush said as he greeted Fox.

"Hola. Buenas tardes," Fox replied, before they piled into Bush's mud-spattered white Ford pickup and drove to the ranch house, with Bush behind the wheel.

The visit culminates months of diplomacy aimed at healing the rift, which opened wide in August 2002, when Fox canceled a summit at the ranch to protest the execution of a Mexican citizen convicted of killing an undercover Dallas police officer. Relations continued to sour in subsequent months as Mexico, then a member of the United Nations Security Council, opposed U.S. plans to invade Iraq.

Both sides insist that those days are in the past.

"We are partners who have a shared commitment to addressing the common challenges of our hemisphere," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said.

The Bush-Fox relationship has come "full circle: love, hate and re-encounter," Rafael Fernandez de Castro, a Mexican specialist on international relations, wrote this week in the Mexico City newspaper Reforma.

He added that despite past differences, they are bound by security interests, trade and migration across their countries' 2,000-mile border and, in Bush's case, the growing weight of the Latino vote in the United States.

The two presidents planned to discuss immigration, water, border security and pending death penalty cases. But both face political challenges -- Bush is running for reelection and Fox is hamstrung by an opposition-dominated Congress -- and the most important outcome might be the photos of them looking statesmanlike together.

"At the end of the day, they both have reached an agreement to have it be a win-win meeting. You're not going to have any ruffled feathers in this encounter," said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, a Mexico expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The summit began with a dinner of fresh bass that Bush said he caught in the ranch's stocked pond. The leaders are scheduled to hold formal consultations today, followed by a news conference.

"If these meetings help President Bush's image or help the image of President Fox, that is secondary," Fox told reporters before leaving for the United States. "We are both going into this with a very professional and very serious sense of what we have to build together."

The countries exchanged goodwill gestures on the eve of the meeting. U.S. officials said the Bush administration was considering lifting fingerprinting requirements for some Mexican citizens who travel frequently to the United States.

For its part, Mexico partially lifted a ban on U.S. beef that was imposed after mad cow disease was detected.

But absent from the pair's 11th meeting is the euphoria and optimism of their initial encounter, which took place at Fox's San Cristobal ranch in February 2001, when both were new in office. Fox challenged the United States to open its borders to a greater flow of Mexican workers.

In early September that year, the two leaders agreed to pursue an overhaul of U.S. immigration law.

But the Sept. 11 attacks just days later diverted Bush's attention, and it wasn't until two months ago that Bush outlined a proposal to give temporary work permits to millions of illegal immigrants working in the United States, including as many as 4 million Mexicans.

Fox backed the plan in January when he and Bush met in Monterrey, Mexico. But this week, the Mexican leader told reporters he had no illusions that it would reach Congress and be enacted into law during a U.S. election year.

"This will take time," Fox said. "We are aware of that. So we are working on other things that can be decided in the short term."

One such decision might exempt millions of visa-carrying Mexicans from being fingerprinted and photographed when they enter the United States for short stays near the border. Fox said he would tell Bush that Mexicans entering the U.S. should be treated like Canadians, who are not subject to the US-VISIT screening program launched in January.

Fox also wants Bush to rule out the latest idea generated by his administration for discouraging illegal immigrants -- putting those caught by the Border Patrol on deportation flights to their home regions of Mexico instead of dropping them off at the border. Unless such flights are voluntary, Fox said, deportations would violate his people's constitutional right to freedom of movement in Mexico.

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