CANCUN, Mexico — With the emotions of the immigration debate roiling politics to the north, President Bush arrived here Wednesday evening for meetings with Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The three-party conference, aimed at bolstering a year-old economic and security partnership, comes at a sensitive moment in U.S.-Mexican relations. The Senate is debating a proposal that would overhaul the United States' immigration laws. It would tighten border restrictions and create a program that would allow some of the nation's estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants to become citizens without having to leave the country.
It is unclear whether the United States' latest effort to tighten its borders will interfere with Bush's ongoing agenda to invigorate economic cooperation, and how much can be accomplished at the meeting today and Friday, with each leader in uneasy domestic political circumstances.
Bush is struggling to overcome the lowest approval ratings of his presidency, Fox is in the final year of a six-year term and cannot run for reelection, and Harper, who heads a minority Conservative government, came to power only two months ago after an election in which he was accused of being too cozy with the Bush administration.
Bush favors allowing restricted numbers of foreigners to work legally in the United States in a "guest worker" program. But he opposes giving undocumented immigrants in the U.S. an edge over those seeking American citizenship from abroad.
Fox, who has praised the Senate measure as "a step forward," is expected to assure Bush that Mexico will implement greater security measures along the border if the bill becomes law, Mexican media reported.
On Tuesday, Fox said he was "moderately optimistic" about the legislation's prospects, adding that the bill resembled the immigration program he promised to seek soon after taking office in 2000. His inability to make good on the vow has been one of the disappointments of his presidency.
With the Mexican presidential election little more than three months away, Fox is under pressure to demonstrate that he remains an effective leader who can stand up to the United States to defend his country's interests.
Fox also has been working hard to pump life into the campaign of Felipe Calderon, the candidate of his center-right National Action Party. Calderon trails leftist contender Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador by a wide margin in polls.
Both presidential candidates are united in opposing an immigration bill that the U.S. House of Representatives approved last year. It would make illegal entry into the United States a felony, criminalize humanitarian assistance to undocumented immigrants, and add 700 miles of barriers along the U.S.-Mexican border.
Before leaving Washington, Bush reiterated his position on the immigration bills. "You cannot enforce the border without having a temporary guest worker program -- the two go hand in hand," he said during a question-and-answer session with the nonprofit Freedom House advocacy group. "There are people doing jobs Americans will not do. Many people who have come into our country are helping our economy grow. It's just a fact of life."
After a session of sometimes pointed questions on the Middle East, Afghanistan and other issues, Bush appeared eager to head for a resort that is popular with U.S. tourists.
"No Speedo suit here," he assured the Freedom House audience.
The Cancun conference follows a similar three-way meeting a year ago at Bush's vacation home near Crawford, Texas, at which he, Fox and then-Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin established the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America, a loosely structured framework intended to enhance cross-border protections and economic cooperation.
For Bush, the program has become part of his initiative to advance U.S. competitiveness in the global economy, unveiled two months ago in his State of the Union address.
The partnership would enable the three signatories to the North American Free Trade Agreement to boost trade beyond the continent.
As it is, trade within North America is huge: Canada is the United States' largest trading partner with daily trans-border business greater than $1 billion; Mexico is the third largest, behind China. Canada is the United States' largest supplier of imported oil; Mexico ranks second.
Just as the unresolved disputes over immigration have exposed the shaky foundation of the U.S.-Mexican relationship, disagreements also color the United States' ties with Canada.
Washington and Ottawa have been at odds for several years over subsidies Canada provides to its softwood lumber industry. U.S. lumber producers say the assistance undercuts competition.
Gerstenzang reported from Cancun and Tobar from Mexico City.