MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina — President Bush has said immigration reform ranks near the top of his second-term agenda, but he and Mexican President Vicente Fox passed up an opportunity this weekend to discuss the controversial issue at a hemispheric summit here.
The omission raised fresh questions about whether Bush will be able to push through Congress a guest-worker program that is dividing members of his own party.
"He wasn't interested, and I wasn't either," Fox said in an interview published Saturday in Clarin, a leading Argentine newspaper. "Why would we have a meeting just to have one? When we have important issues before us, we deal with them."
The two leaders were in the seaside resort of Mar del Plata to attend a two-day, 34-nation Summit of the Americas.
A senior Bush administration official here played down Fox's comments. "I wouldn't read too much into them," said the official, who requested anonymity as he sought to minimize the issue.
He reiterated Bush's pledge to not only bolster border security but also seek a temporary worker program that would, in the president's words, "provide for our economy's labor needs without harming American workers, and without granting amnesty, and that will relieve pressure on our borders."
Under Bush's proposal, unlawful immigrants could gain temporary legal status by paying a fine and signing up for a three-year work program, with the possibility of a three-year extension. Many employers, including large agriculture companies, hotels and restaurants, rely on foreign workers to meet their labor needs. Such guest workers would be issued identification cards. At the end of their work period, they would be expected to leave the country.
Advocates of the guest-worker approach have said that it would enable U.S. agents to focus more on dangerous immigrants and help meet a need of the national economy.
However, Bush's plan has met resistance from a number of Republican lawmakers, leading him to also begin stressing the law enforcement aspects of his immigration policy. Some critics maintain that it amounts to an unwarranted amnesty that would encourage people to enter the United States unlawfully. The number of illegal immigrants is currently estimated at between 8 million and 11 million.
Given such opposition, many immigration activists regard Bush's chances of creating a guest-worker program as slim.
White House national security advisor Stephen J. Hadley, asked last week about the fact that Bush and Fox would not be meeting one-on-one, replied: "There's a limited time on these things to do bilaterals, and a lot of considerations go into who you do a bilateral with and when.... You sort of put all of that in the mix, coming up with a decision about who you have a bilateral with or not."
Fox was initially ambivalent about the guest-worker program, reflecting criticism on both sides of the border that the plan would create a permanent "underclass" of documented migrants who could be exploited and eventually expelled from the United States when their visas expired.
Fox's comments Saturday were another reminder that the two leaders' once-warm relationship had turned unpredictable. The two men first met when Bush was governor of Texas, and Mexico was the first foreign country Bush visited as president.
But relations began to cool after the Mexican president opposed the Iraq war and canceled a visit in 2002 to Bush's ranch near Crawford, Texas, to protest the execution of a Mexican citizen convicted of murder in Texas.