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Summit Fails to Resolve Key Issues

Bush and the leaders of Canada and Mexico agree to boost economic ties but remain divided on immigration and other border matters.

April 01, 2006|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

CANCUN, Mexico — The United States and its North American neighbors sought without success Friday to ease the diplomatic irritants that continue to color their cross-border relations, with immigration and other border issues atop the list.

President Bush, Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper ended a day and a half of meetings by agreeing to enhance economic cooperation.

But Bush and Harper made clear that they had been unable to narrow differences over whether all visitors to the U.S., including those from Canada, would be required to produce passports or similar tamper-resistant documents to enter the country.

Bush renewed his support for letting Mexicans enter the U.S. for a specific period to fill jobs rejected by Americans, delving into an issue that has raised emotions across the U.S. and Mexico as the Senate debates proposals to overhaul immigration laws. At this point, Bush has greater disagreements with Congress, particularly fellow Republicans, than he has with Fox.

"The Mexican government understands it has a responsibility ... to protect the border," Bush said.

He refused to say whether he would veto legislation that did not include allowances for "guest workers," saying instead that he was optimistic that the legislation would include such provisions.

Bush told his Mexican audience that the legislative process "probably appears a little unpleasant from your perspective.

"It's like watching people make sausage," he said.

Bush renewed his call for more comprehensive legislation than that passed by the House, which makes no provision for guest workers. It also would treat undocumented immigrants and those who help them as felons.

He said that allowing foreigners to work in the U.S. for assigned periods would pull the rug out from under people smugglers, or "coyotes," and forgers who help undocumented visitors cross the U.S.-Mexican border and enter the workforce.

Bush also argued that a nation could not be certain of prosperity if it did not have secure borders.

"If people are concerned that, for example, the towns along the border aren't secure, it's going to be difficult to keep prosperity alive," he said.

In pointed remarks reflecting Mexican sensitivities, Fox said that "migration can only be solved" if legislation offered safety and respect to immigrants.

The three leaders spoke at a news conference that concluded their meetings at a beachfront hotel in this resort city on the Yucatan Peninsula, which still is recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Wilma last fall.

Their comments illustrate the difficulties of handling even minor irritants in normally close diplomatic relations at a time when U.S. foreign policy is dominated by Iraq and the effort to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of Iran and North Korea.

On economic matters, the leaders praised the year-old Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America, a framework intended to make trade more efficient. They agreed to establish a joint council of business leaders to seek ways for their countries to compete with other major trading communities and countries.

Citing competition from China and India, Bush said, "We face prosperity challenges from abroad like never before."

The three leaders also agreed to cooperate in campaigns to protect North America from bird flu, which has not yet been detected on the continent.

Even as they addressed their differences Thursday and Friday, the leaders went out of their way to ease the political difficulties the issues bring one another at home.

Bush said Harper, who has led a minority Conservative government for two months, had "made an emphatic case" about a long-running trade dispute over Canadian softwood lumber.

"I appreciate his steely resolve to get something done," Bush said after the meeting Thursday, offering a remark that can only help the Canadian prime minister make the case to constituents skeptical of U.S. ties that he had stood up for a national industry.

Similarly, Bush said Friday that Harper had expressed concern about the U.S. law, to take effect in 2008, requiring anyone entering the U.S. to hold a passport or other tamper-resistant identification. Border communities fear that the law will sharply curtail cross-border traffic, on which local merchants rely. Currently, driver's licenses often suffice.

"We're obviously concerned that if we don't move quickly and properly on this, that this could have effects on trade and movement of people, conventions, you name it, that is not helpful to our economy or to relationships," Harper said.

Bush said the regulation need not be onerous, citing what he said were technological advances that could allow quick, electronic scans of the identification documents used to enter the country.

Although the U.S. must work hard to secure its long borders, the president said, "we also have got to make sure we got smart borders. And so the whole vision of our borders has got to be to enhance trade and tourism, but to prevent smugglers and terrorists and dope runners from polluting our countries.

"With the use of technology and by close collaboration, we'll be able to achieve those objectives," Bush said.

But the suggestions of simpatico did not keep Bush from enjoying a question at Fox's expense.

A Mexican reporter asked Fox about recent comments criticizing demagoguery and appeals to populism in the presidential campaign that will elect his successor July 2. He was asked whether he had forgotten "the populist language that you used in your own presidential campaign" six years ago.

Bush couldn't suppress a grin. He did not offer to help Fox answer the question.

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