Thursday, March 4, 2004

Mexican President Vicente Fox has no intention of easing his demands for relaxed immigration rules when he meets today with President Bush, but acknowledges that political realities may put off any changes until next year.

“We know it is going to take a long time … before we reach an integrated agreement,” Mr. Fox said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Nonetheless, he said his top priority during talks today and tomorrow at the president’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, will be to press for the eventual relaxation of rules on immigration from Mexico.

Yesterday, Mr. Fox won a concession from the Bush administration when the Homeland Security Department abandoned plans to tighten restrictions on Mexicans who legally enter the United States for short periods. The United States agreed not to fingerprint and photograph Mexicans who already have visas, whose visits last less than three days and who remain within 25 miles of the border.

Mr. Fox has argued that the administration does not take such precautions with Canadians.

“We shouldn’t be treated differently,” Mr. Fox said in the interview.

Mr. Fox also wants full implementation of Mr. Bush’s proposal to allow millions of illegal aliens in the United States to remain as guest workers for three to six years if they can prove to federal officials that they have jobs. The aliens could eventually apply for permanent residence and citizenship.

Some view the proposal as a way for Mr. Bush to court Hispanic voters in the upcoming election. But backlash from his conservative base may outweigh any gains among Hispanics.

The White House says Mr. Bush has not put immigration on the back burner now that he is in campaign mode. But Bush spokeswoman Claire Buchan suggested there was no pressing need for the two leaders to discuss immigration today.

“The issue of immigration is a very high priority for the president, something he believes very strongly in,” she said. “But I don’t know to what extent that’ll be something that they would discuss, because what the president’s proposed is something the Congress needs to act on.”

Other administration officials made clear Congress will not be tackling the issue anytime soon.

“This will be a contested and a controversial issue,” Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge told the Los Angeles Times on a trip to Mexico last month. “It would be very difficult [to enact] in a calendar year that has a national election and two national conventions and a whole bunch of primaries.”

Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchison told the Houston Chronicle: “It’s going to be rough sailing unless members of Congress and the American public understand that we have the capability of securing our border.”

To demonstrate that capability, the Bush administration is trying to significantly reduce the number of Mexicans illegally entering the United States along the 2,000-mile border by this summer.

Mr. Fox, as a show of good faith, recently agreed to send at least some captured Mexicans back to their home regions deep inside Mexico instead of simply releasing them at the border, where they often try again to enter illegally. But he is expected to argue today that the relocation program should be applied only to Mexicans who volunteer to be sent home.

The Mexican president also said there is no evidence showing that terrorists have been using Mexico as a base from which to attack America. Nonetheless, his government recently canceled several Mexican airline flights to Los Angeles after the FBI raised concerns about terrorist attacks.

Mr. Fox’s cancellation of the flights and his willingness to allow FBI agents to implement security measures in Mexican airports has exposed him to domestic criticism, although he insisted he would continue to cooperate with the United States.

Today’s meeting is seen as a thaw in relations between the United States and Mexico, which cooled after security concerns in the wake of September 11 forced Mr. Bush to delay his plan for immigration reform. Relations were further strained in 2002, when Mr. Fox canceled a visit with Mr. Bush to protest the Texas execution of a man whom Mr. Fox said was a Mexican national.

Mexico also opposed the invasion of Iraq last year, marking a low point in U.S.-Mexican relations since Mr. Bush took office. It was a far cry from the heady days before the terror attacks, when the new American president chose Mexico as the destination of his first foreign trip.

Tensions began to ease at the beginning of this year, when Mr. Bush resurrected his plan for immigration reform. Days later, the two leaders met at a hemispheric summit in Monterrey, Mexico, where Mr. Bush invited Mr. Fox to his ranch today.

• This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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