- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 6, 2001

Mexican President Vicente Fox yesterday unexpectedly challenged President Bush to relax immigration rules within four months, not the four years Mr. Fox said on Monday would be needed for a bilateral agreement.
"We must and we can reach an agreement on migration before the end of this very year," Mr. Fox said during an elaborate White House ceremony kicking off the first state visit of the Bush administration.
The White House seemed surprised by the Mexican leader's newfound urgency, although National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice later insisted the administration had been "aware" of Mr. Fox's accelerated timetable.
Just three days ago, Mr. Fox said it would take four to six years to hammer out an agreement. Yesterday, he said an agreement by year's end "will allow us, before the end of our respective terms, to make sure that there are no Mexicans who have not entered this country legally."
That would mean some 3 million illegal immigrants would have to be either deported or given legal status by 2005, when Mr. Bush's term ends, or 2006, when Mr. Fox's term ends.
Yesterday's announcement was especially surprising in the wake of recent efforts by the White House to lower expectations for a speedy agreement. Administration officials have been backpedaling since July, when it became clear there was scant congressional support for the president's desire to announce an agreement during this week's state visit.
Since then, Bush officials have been emphasizing the "complexities" of the immigration issue and the need for talks to continue after this week's state visit. Still, the president would like to reach an agreement by 2004, when support from Hispanic voters might be crucial to his re-election.
Yesterday, Miss Rice was asked by The Washington Times how the president could grant legal status to even a fraction of illegal Mexicans without breaking his fairness pledge to law-abiding applicants for immigration.
"There are a lot of details to work through here," she replied. "There are complicated issues to work through. I'm not going to try to guess prior to exactly how this will all turn out, except to say that the principle of fairness is there."
Miss Rice was pressed by The Times to explain how granting legal status to even a single illegal alien would not displace an applicant who had followed the rules.
"A lot is going to depend on what kind of mechanisms we design, what kind of programs we design to deal with this problem. But let me just remind everybody that the migration structure, as it is now, is not functioning in a way that these presidents are comfortable with."
"And we do have undocumented people in the country, and that's a reality," she added. "So they're going to try to deal with all the various, very complicated and interrelated aspects of this to come to something that is more humane, something that works for the American economy and for the Mexican worker and something that will, hopefully, put us on a better footing."
Attorney General John Ashcroft and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell held numerous meetings with their Mexican counterparts in recent months, but failed to come up with an agreement Mr. Bush could sign this week.
"I cannot forecast an exact time," Mr. Ashcroft told reporters at the White House yesterday. "But I can tell you it is a matter of priority."
He said illegal Mexican immigrants will allow Mr. Bush to match "willing workers with willing employers." He said it is important that "we not only respect the law, but respect the dignity" of illegal Mexicans and the "contributions that individuals make in our culture."
Mr. Fox made similar comments, emphasizing the positive aspects of current Mexicans living illegally in the United States. He said the legalization of their status "will recognize, above all, the value of migrants as human beings and as workers whose hard work is a daily contribution to the prosperity of this great nation."
"The time has come to give migrants and their communities their proper place in the history of our bilateral relations," he added during the White House welcoming ceremony on the South Lawn. "Both our countries owe them a great deal."
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, who met with Mr. Bush yesterday, said congressional approval of an initiative to grant guest-worker status to illegal Mexicans was "doable." However, he too was unable to reconcile the program with the president's fairness pledge.
Although Mr. Fox is eager to grant legal status to Mexican immigrants who have already broken the law, he said future immigrants must enter the country legally. He said any agreement he and Mr. Bush reach should require Mexicans who "come into the country do so with the proper documents."
While Mr. Fox publicly discussed the immigration issue at length, Mr. Bush made only passing mention of it as one of many issues to be considered. He said both nations must "tackle challenges on the issues that affect the lives of our citizens, including migration, the environment, drugs, crime, corruption and education."
He did not mention the issue of Mexican trucks transporting goods into the United States, a practice that is opposed by the Teamsters union. But the White House later issued a statement vowing to veto any congressional ban of Mexican trucks having unfettered access to American roads because it would violate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
At the same time, the White House vowed to ensure that all Mexican trucks operating in the United States meet stringent safety standards.
After meeting with Mr. Fox on this and other issues, Mr. Bush hosted a state dinner for the Mexican leader. It was Mr. Bush's first state dinner, although he has met informally with Mr. Fox four other times since becoming president.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Powell hosted a lunch for Mr. Fox at the State Department and was lauded by the Mexican president.
"If the subject is migration, who better to discuss it than the son of immigrants?" Mr. Fox said, referring to Mr. Powell's Jamaican-born parents.
Ben Barber contributed to this article.

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