- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 7, 2004

CRAWFORD, Texas — President Bush acceded to the demands of Mexican President Vicente Fox and halted plans to fingerprint and photograph documented migrants entering the United States across the southern border.

During a news conference held after a morning meeting between the two men yesterday, Mr. Fox expressed his appreciation to Mr. Bush for scaling back the scope of the United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology Program (US-VISIT), exempting Mexicans who hold so-called “laser visas” from going through the additional security check.

“We welcome the news that was confirmed today with regard to visitors to the U.S. from Mexico,” Mr. Fox said. “We recognize the value to those who come to the United States to work, to study, to contribute, and we appreciate what this will do to the flow of visitors [to the United States] now that they will not have to be photographed or fingerprinted at the frontier for short visits to the United States.”

Laser visas include a digital photograph and biometric identifiers, such as fingerprints, for each cardholder. Mexican nationals coming into the United States began carrying them in October 2002.

Mr. Bush said his decision to drop the fingerprint-and-photograph requirement for visa-holding Mexicans is “very reasonable,” and was happy for the “progress” the two countries are making on immigration matters.

He also defended a proposal he made in January to grant worker cards to millions of illegal aliens now in the United States that would award temporary legal status for several years at a time.

Mr. Bush strongly insisted that his plan is “not an amnesty program,” but a way to facilitate “safe and orderly migration.”

“I oppose amnesty, placing undocumented workers on the path to citizenship,” Mr. Bush said. “This program will match willing workers with willing employers without disadvantaging those who have followed the law and waited in line to achieve American citizenship.”

Mr. Fox said immigration concerns dominated their discussions yesterday, and claimed that the United States greatly benefits from migrant workers from Mexico.

“We know the value of the open relationship, commercial relationship, and the impact that it has had on both these nations, and the unprecedented levels of prosperity that it brings to our people,” Mr. Fox said. “It’s a two-way street, a two-way commercial street. It’s a buying-and-selling operation.”

Mr. Bush agreed with the Mexican president’s characterization of immigration.

“The United States will benefit from the labor of hard-working immigrants,” Mr. Bush said. “Mexico will benefit as productive citizens are able to return home with money to invest and spend in their nation’s economy.”

All the talk about Mr. Bush’s immigration-reform plan, however, is likely to be in vain — at least this year. Congress, especially the conservative Republicans who dominate the House, have given the president’s proposal a cool reception.

Even Mr. Bush had to acknowledge that his plan has little chance of passing soon.

“I certainly hope the Congress takes this issue up, but there’s no telling what’s going to happen in an election year,” he said.

The president said his plan to loosen immigration rules goes hand-in-hand with a bilateral commitment to tighten border security.

“In this age of terror, the security of our borders is more important than ever, and the cooperation between Mexico and American border law enforcement is stronger than ever,” he said.

John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, traveled to Houston yesterday and accused Mr. Bush of using the Fox visit to court Hispanic voters.

“Latinos can tell it’s an election year because George W. Bush is finally paying attention to them,” Mr. Kerry charged in a statement.

Despite the disappointing growth of 21,000 jobs in February, Mr. Bush insisted that the economy is improving. Mr. Kerry has assailed the president on the economy, advocating stricter controls on trade as one fix.

“The economy is getting stronger,” Mr. Bush said. “The question is, who brings forth the best pro-growth policies. This nation must reject economic isolationism.”

The president also defended his campaign’s use of footage of the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in New York City. An antiwar group made up of people who lost relatives in the World Trade Center attack has complained that Mr. Bush is exploiting the event for political purposes.

Mr. Bush, however, was unapologetic about his campaign’s television ads.

“I will continue to speak about the effects of 9/11 on our country and my presidency,” Mr. Bush said in his first public statements on the controversy. “I will continue to mourn the loss of life on that day, but I’ll never forget the lessons. I have an obligation to those who were heroic in their attempts to rescue, and I won’t forget that obligation.”

In an interview on the Fox News Channel yesterday, Mr. Kerry said it is “inappropriate” for Mr. Bush to use images from the September 11 attacks. Asked about his use of footage from the Vietnam War in his ads, Mr. Kerry said there is no comparison.

“I was there, and it was mine,” Mr. Kerry said of the home-movie footage he used in the Democratic primaries. “And it was a war and I fought in it. It’s very different from taking firefighters, coffins coming out of ground zero. I mean it’s just very different.”

More than a dozen families who lost relatives in the terrorist attacks released an “Open Letter to America” yesterday, declaring their support for Mr. Bush and his use of the footage in his ads.

“There is no better testament to the leadership of President Bush than September 11,” said the letter authored by Jimmy Boyle, former president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association. “In choosing our next leader, we must not forget that day if we are to have a meaningful conversation. … The images in President Bush’s campaign television ads are respectful of the memories of September 11.”

Mr. Bush has no public events on schedule today, but he will campaign in Dallas and Houston tomorrow, then return to the White House.

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