- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 26, 2002

MEXICO CITY Not long ago, while still settling in as presidents of their respective countries, George W. Bush and Vicente Fox were creating high hopes for a new deal to end the long-running dispute over migrant workers and legalizing the status of undocumented Mexicans in the United States.

Then came September 11, and things went into deep-freeze.

Now, the best Mr. Fox's government can hope for is to start talking again. The chance for that began yesterday as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, new U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza and other Bush administration officials visit Mexico for two days of talks.

The obstacles remain formidable: Many U.S. lawmakers oppose legalizing the 3 million Mexicans living in the United States, the possibility of a war with Iraq threatens to sideline Mexico's problems again, relations between Mr. Bush and Mr. Fox have cooled, and a water dispute looms.

The place where these issues are discussed is the Binational Commission, set up a decade ago to deal with such issues as farming, trade, customs, immigration and law enforcement.

The commission meeting this week "is an opportunity to make up for time we lost after the terrorist attacks," said Tarcisio Navarrete, head of the Mexican House's Foreign Relations Committee.

Lately Mr. Fox has become increasingly vocal in pressing for a temporary amnesty or new work-visa program for Mexicans illegally in the United States.

During a meeting with Mr. Fox last month in Mexico, Mr. Bush said he shared Mr. Fox's concerns but did not indicate how or when he would address them. Mr. Powell suggested that next year would be a good time.

Mr. Navarrete, a legislator from Mr. Fox's conservative National Action Party, said any sweeping agreement is still far off.

"Mexico should not be frustrated by a lack of progress. This won't happen overnight," he said. But the Binational Commission needs to be told "that this is a humanitarian concern that demands urgent attention."

Mr. Navarrete said that almost 350 Mexican migrants have died trying to cross the U.S. border illegally this year.

"Both countries need to do more to protect those who are dying," he said.

Frank Sharry, director of the pro-migrant Washington advocacy group National Immigration Forum, said the commission meeting could be the Fox government's last chance before a war with Iraq puts Mexican concerns on hold again.

"Realistically, now is the time for the Mexicans to press this issue. It's after midterm elections. It's long enough after September 11, and they're well within their rights to press for progress," Mr. Sharry said.

Ambassador Garza says he is open to a migration accord, but in the U.S. Congress, there's bipartisan suspicion of anything leading to permanent U.S. residency for temporary Mexican workers.

While Mexico pushes migration, the Americans are likely to urge their Mexican counterparts to pay back nearly half a trillion gallons of Rio Grande water owed to south Texas farmers under a 1944 treaty.

The State Department sent Mexico a reminder last month, and the farmers say the shortfall has cost them hundreds of millions of dollars in lost crops since 1992.

Mexican Foreign Secretary Jorge Castaneda cites drought but says Mexico is on track to pay back the water over the next five years.

Mexico also hopes to use the talks to win back some of the influence it had in Washington just before September 11, when Mr. Bush received Mr. Fox as his first state visitor and the two signed a friendship pact.

Mr. Fox, the most pro-U.S. president of Mexico in decades, has since been accused at home of giving the Americans too much for too little.

Relations hit a low in August, when Texas executed a Mexican convicted of killing a police officer and Mr. Fox canceled a trip to Texas that would have included a stop at Mr. Bush's ranch.

Mexican officials hope that Mr. Garza, Mr. Bush's friend and longtime political ally, is the key to putting Mexico back on Washington's short list.

Still, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington-based think tank, says Latin America, including Mexico, is likely to return to the Bush administration's back burner.

In a report assessing U.S.-Latin American relations, the council concluded that "aside from photo-ops," meetings between Mr. Bush and Mr. Fox "have continuously failed to produce any significant changes."

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