- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2001

For much of his career, Sen. Jesse Helms has been regarded by many in Washington as a Mexico-basher.

The North Carolina Republican repeatedly has scoffed at Mexico's efforts to fight drug trafficking. He blasted its government as "corrupt" and too cozy with Cuba, and vocally opposed a U.S. bailout six years ago when Mexico was said to be on the verge of financial collapse.

Starting today, though, Mr. Helms will try a new tack: as a statesman.

Mr. Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is leading a high-profile delegation to Mexico City to meet with President Vicente Fox and other government officials with the stated intention of fostering "an emerging friendship."

What has changed? Perhaps most notably, Mexico's leadership.

Mr. Fox's election last year ended 71 years of rule by the scandal-plagued Institutional Revolutionary Party, and U.S. politicians of all stripes are hopeful that the new administration will mark the start of a far more cooperative era between the two neighbors.

Analysts say the trip also signals something different for Mr. Helms, 79, who has not announced whether he will seek a sixth term next year. Even if Mr. Helms is re-elected, he won't be permitted to return as chairman of his committee under Senate rules.

"With this trip, Sen. Helms is extending a handshake rather than a hard-balled fist," said George Grayson, a foreign-affairs analyst at the College of William and Mary. "I think he wants to leave some positive fingerprints on the pages of history, and this is a chance to do so."

It is also a chance to help a fledgling Republican administration. President Bush, who chose to go to Mexico on his first foreign trip as president, is courting Mr. Fox as well.

Mr. Helms' three-day trip will include at least one historic first, when his panel holds a joint hearing with the Mexican Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It is believed to be the first time a committee of Congress has held such a meeting on foreign soil.

Many of the thorniest issues confronting the nations are expected to be aired, including illegal immigration, narcotics trafficking and trade. No one expects many concrete accomplishments from a single gathering, but analysts say the dialogue is important.

"The main value in the short term is probably symbolic," said Jonathan Hartlyn, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who specializes in Latin America. "But the hope is it will lead to something more substantive in the future."

In the past, few politicians have been more vocal than Mr. Helms about issues confronting the two countries. In many areas, common solutions certainly will be hard to find.

Mr. Fox, for example, has been pushing for a more open-border policy and to scale back the Border Patrol, which in recent years has made entry into the United States more dangerous.

The issue is paramount to both nations: An estimated 150,000 Mexicans enter the United States illegally every year, many taking jobs as farmhands, housekeepers and restaurant workers.

Mr. Fox wants to allow far more Mexicans to cross the border legally, regularize the status of many who are working illegally here and restore a version of a guest-worker program that dates from World War II. The program, which the U.S. government terminated in 1964, gave temporary work visas to thousands of Mexican workers at a time when labor was scarce.

It's not clear how receptive Mr. Helms will be.

In an opinion piece written in February for the Mexican newspaper Reforma, Mr. Helms derided past Mexican leaders for "the absurd suggestion that the United States somehow owes Mexico an apology for policing our own border."

• Distributed by Scripps Howard

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