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Bush-Fox Talks Yield Easing of Travel, Work Rules

The U.S. says it is committed to lifting restrictions on Mexicans who visit or seek jobs.

March 07, 2004|Richard Boudreaux and Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writers

CRAWFORD, Texas — Mexican President Vicente Fox won a promise Saturday from President Bush to end fingerprinting requirements for millions of frequent border crossers from his country and announced an end to limits on the number of U.S. work visas available for Mexican professionals.

The announcement came at a summit at Bush's Texas ranch, a meeting delayed for 18 months by disputes over Iraq and the death penalty for Mexicans convicted of murder in the United States.

By lifting limits on the number of Mexicans who can qualify for professional visas -- a change that took effect without fanfare Jan. 1 -- the Bush administration made it possible for most Mexican white-collar workers with job offers in the United States to qualify for visas.

The new rules were a victory for Fox, who had argued that Mexicans, as neighbors, should enjoy the same privileges as Canadians, who are exempt from a 2-month-old rule that foreigners be fingerprinted and photographed each time they enter the United States.

Bush left it to his guest to announce both developments and did not elaborate on them. Immigration is a sensitive issue in the United States, and the president's recent proposal to give temporary guest worker status to millions of illegal immigrants has not been particularly popular with voters.

Answering a Mexican reporter's question, Bush declined to say whether he would push Congress to pass his proposal, for which Fox had lobbied.

"There's no telling what's going to happen in an election year, so it's very difficult to give a date," Bush said.

Fox's visit lasted less than 24 hours, but it signaled that the two leaders have recaptured the friendliness that faded when Fox canceled a summit here 18 months ago after Texas executed a Mexican citizen.

"We welcome the news that was confirmed today with regard to visitors to the U.S. from Mexico," Fox said, standing beside Bush in the bright sunshine, both in shirt sleeves, jeans and cowboy boots. "We appreciate what this will do to the flow of visitors now that they will not have to be photographed or fingerprinted at the frontier for short visits to the United States."

Bush's political opponents, including the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, accused the president of using Fox's visit primarily as a photo opportunity to appeal to Latino voters in the November election.

"Latinos can tell it's an election year because George W. Bush is finally paying attention to them," Kerry said in a statement Saturday.

All the same, Bush chose not to underscore Saturday's agreements. He is trying to walk a fine line on immigration policy, appealing to Latinos who want to make it easier for Mexicans to work in the U.S., without alienating conservatives who oppose amnesty for undocumented immigrants and concessions to the Mexican government.

The fingerprinting issue became a serious point of contention for Mexicans, who said they felt humiliated by the rules imposed by the Department of Homeland Security on most foreign visitors.

The easing of the rules will apply to the 6.8 million Mexicans who hold border-crossing cards known as "laser" visas, which permit visits for as long as three days and travel no more than 25 miles beyond the border. The cards are designed largely to assist those who cross the border to work, attend school or shop.

National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack said Bush told Fox that he was committed to lifting the photo and fingerprinting rules but that some details -- which McCormack said he could not specify -- still needed to be worked out.

The second change Fox outlined would mean expanded opportunities for thousands of Mexican teachers, medical workers, technicians and other white-collar professionals to seek and accept jobs in the United States -- reversal of a post-Sept. 11 trend to restrict work visas.

Most foreign professionals seeking work in the U.S. apply for H1-B visas under a program that limits the number of such permits to 65,000 annually.

Mexicans have also been eligible to work in the U.S. under "NAFTA visas" created when the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect 10 years ago. The accord put an annual cap of 5,500 on such visas but called for an annual renegotiation of the cap starting in 2004.

U.S. and Mexican officials described the NAFTA visa program as an obscure opportunity little used by Mexicans, who take no more than 500 such work permits a year. For that reason, the officials said, the two countries abolished this year's limit, but the decision received no public attention until Saturday.

Officials of both countries said the announcement was meant to promote the NAFTA visa as an alternative for Mexican professionals frustrated by the U.S. clampdown on H1-B visas. The NAFTA visa covers 63 professions, from agronomist to librarian.

"It's a nice opportunity for Mexicans," said Jeff Brown, a U.S. Embassy spokesman in Mexico City. He said the end of the quota would eliminate U.S. Labor Department screening and speed visa approvals. "They can just walk into a U.S. Consulate, demonstrate that they have a job offer in the United States and get a visa."

Agustin Gutierrez Canet, the Mexican presidential spokesman, said Fox was "very satisfied" with what he called small advances on immigration. He said the leaders held no substantive talks on Bush's proposed guest worker program. And neither leader publicly mentioned other contentious issues, including Mexico's water debt to the U.S., or planned executions of Mexicans on death row in the United States.

"We were not expecting any spectacular announcements from this summit," Gutierrez said, "but what the two presidents did achieve is a good basis for future advances on the migration issue."

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