WEST VALLEY, Utah — Mexican President Vicente Fox kicked off a four-day U.S. visit Tuesday by decrying congressional proposals to build a wall to keep illegal immigrants in Mexico, saying that "we won't resolve this problem with fences, but hand in hand, working together."
Fox told a cheering crowd of 1,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans -- some of whom had come from as far as Montana to hear him -- that they helped keep the U.S. economy running and displayed the hard work and honesty that did their ancestral country proud.
"Even though you are far from Mexico, you are an integral part of Mexico," Fox said. "We will never forget you. We love you."
Fox's visit, which takes him to Washington state today and to meetings with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in Sacramento and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in Los Angeles later in the week, comes on the heels of President Bush's proposal to station 6,000 National Guard troops at the border and amid growing frustration over illegal immigration.
The Senate is expected to vote Thursday on immigration legislation that may allow many of the 12 million illegal immigrants now in the country to remain, a proposal that conservatives in the House have vowed to block.
Analysts say the current environment makes Fox's trip a risky undertaking.
"He's shooting himself in the foot -- with a machine gun," said George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. "The last thing senators and representatives in Washington want is someone from abroad telling them how to legislate."
Fox, who completes his six-year term in December and by law is barred from seeking reelection, had hoped to negotiate an immigration overhaul package during his presidency, a goal sidetracked by the Sept. 11 attacks and the war in Iraq.
His political heir, Felipe Calderon, has a narrow lead in polls to become Mexico's next president in the July election. Grayson said Fox's visit also risked stealing the spotlight from Calderon during this critical political time in Mexico.
The visit stirred some resentment in Utah, a conservative state with a history of tolerance for legal and illegal immigrants that stems from the Mormon religion's proselytization in developing countries. Representatives from the Utah Minuteman Project, a group that strongly opposes illegal immigration, protested outside a state dinner at the governor's mansion Tuesday night. Fox canceled his lone news conference in the state and rearranged his schedule so he would not take media questions.
But, in a sign of the state's pro-immigrant nature, Fox got an ebullient welcome from the region's political elite Tuesday afternoon when he spoke at a community center in this Salt Lake City suburb. Utah Atty. Gen. Mark Shurtleff, a conservative Republican who just won reelection, choked up as he praised Mexican traditions in fluent Spanish.
"It's a culture that shows the importance of family, in which parents teach and care for children," Shurtleff said to cheers. "It's a culture that teaches by example the importance of labor and work. These are values that, unfortunately, we are losing here in my country."
Utah's Republican governor, Jon Huntsman Jr., a former diplomat and trade official, invited Fox to the state during a trade mission to Mexico City last summer.
Fox on Tuesday praised Huntsman and the state government for being one of the few in the U.S. to allow illegal immigrants to pay the same tuition at public universities as legal residents, and for providing otherwise undocumented immigrants with cards that function as driver's licenses.
Claudio A. Holzner, a political science professor at the University of Utah and an expert in Mexican and Latin American issues, said Fox may be able to take advantage of his good relationships with state officials.
On an immigration or guest worker law, "it certainly allows him to have conversations with governors and local representatives at a time when it would be too delicate for him to try to influence the national debate directly. He's trying to influence the debate in a more low-key way," Holzner said.
In a luncheon speech to a business group in Salt Lake City, Fox touted Mexico's growing economy. He also met privately with state and Mormon church leaders.
In his speech to the crowd of immigrants, Fox spent as much time praising them and urging them not to forget Mexico as he did talking about immigration.
That reflects Mexico's dependence on its migrants, who send an estimated $20 billion home annually, making them the nation's biggest industry after petroleum.
"Over there, we wait for you with open arms," Fox told the crowd. "Your family is over there. Your family that appreciates and loves you. Your home is over there."
Daniel Chihuahua, a 40-year-old illegal immigrant who has lived in Utah for 11 years, said Fox's words struck a chord. "It's a reality, an impulse for all of us" to think of Mexico, Chihuahua said. But one of his three children is a U.S. citizen, and he likes his life north of the border.
He held onto Fox's promise of a "humane" immigration overhaul.
That way, Chihuahua said, he could split his time between the two places he thinks of as home -- Utah and Mexico.
Times staff writers Sam Enriquez in Mexico City and Sam Howe Verhovek in Seattle contributed to this report.