- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 17, 2005

MEXICO CITY — President Vicente Fox reversed course yesterday and apologized for saying that Mexicans in the United States do the work that blacks won’t.

Despite growing criticism that included a stern U.S. response, Mr. Fox had refused repeatedly to back away from the comments he made Friday, saying they had been misinterpreted.

But in telephone conversations with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, Mr. Fox said he “regretted” the statement.

“The president regretted any hurt feelings his statements may have caused,” the Mexican government said. “He expressed the great respect he and his administration have for the African-American community in the United States.”

Mr. Jackson told Mr. Fox that he was sure there had been no racist intent, and suggested the two meet to discuss joint strategies between blacks and immigrant groups in the United States, said Fox spokesman Ruben Aguilar.

Mr. Fox agreed to set up a visit to Mexico by Mr. Jackson, Mr. Sharpton and a group of U.S. black leaders.

Despite Mr. Fox’s latest comment, many Mexicans — stung by a new U.S. crackdown on illegal aliens — didn’t see the remark as offensive. Blackface comedy is still considered funny in Mexico, and many people hand out nicknames based on skin color.

“The president was just telling the truth,” said Celedonio Gonzalez, a 35-year-old carpenter who worked illegally in Dallas for six months in 2001. “Mexicans go to the United States because they have to. Blacks want to earn better wages, and the Mexican — because he is illegal — takes what they pay him.”

Mr. Aguilar earlier said Mr. Fox’s comments were in defense of Mexican migrants as they come under attack by new U.S. immigration measures, which include a wall along the Mexico-California border, and were not meant to offend anybody.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City had raised the issue with the Mexican government.

“That’s a very insensitive and inappropriate way to phrase this, and we would hope that [the Mexicans] would clarify the remarks,” Mr. Boucher said.

Mr. Fox made the comment Friday during a public appearance in Puerto Vallarta: “There’s no doubt that Mexican men and women — full of dignity, willpower and a capacity for work — are doing the work that not even blacks want to do in the United States.”

The issue reflected his growing frustration with U.S. immigration policy and deteriorating bilateral relations.

The Mexican government was expected to send a diplomatic letter to the United States protesting recent measures. They include requiring states to verify that people who apply for driver’s licenses are in the country legally, making it more difficult for migrants to gain amnesty, and overriding environmental laws to build a barrier along the California border with Mexico.

The measures have been widely criticized in Mexico, where residents increasingly see the United States as adopting anti-migrant policies.

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