- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2006

CANCUN, Mexico — President Bush yesterday did not rule out vetoing a border security bill if it does not include a guest-worker program, but said he’s convinced Congress will send him a bill that includes such a provision.

His stance puts him on a collision course with the House, which passed such an immigration enforcement-only bill in December, and particularly with many House Republicans who insist immigration enforcement must come before a foreign-worker program.

Meeting with Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Cancun, Mr. Bush said immigration issues were a major topic here, just as they are in Washington, where the Senate has begun its own debate.

Mr. Bush drew a laugh from Mr. Fox when he told the Mexican leader the legislative process on immigration is like making sausage: “It kind of — you know, it looks — probably appears a little unpleasant from your perspective.”

Asked specifically if he would veto a bill that doesn’t include a guest-worker initiative, Mr. Bush said he is not even thinking about that.

“No answer. I said I want a comprehensive bill,” he told the reporter who asked the question. “You’re presuming there won’t be a comprehensive bill. I believe there will be a comprehensive bill.”

Mr. Fox spent both days assuring Mr. Bush his country is taking steps to fight border violence along the U.S.-Mexico divide, and said they are working to stop illegal aliens coming up from Central America and South America.

Mr. Bush seemed to warn Mexicans to live up to those promises, saying ongoing violence could threaten economic prosperity.

“I don’t see how you can be prosperous if you don’t have security,” he said, adding it will be difficult if “the towns along the border aren’t secure.”

Mr. Fox said through an interpreter that the two nations are already cooperating on sharing information and Mexico has taken steps to crack down on criminal gangs.

The immigration issue is political dynamite in the United States, where Mr. Bush is fighting with members of his own party.

A new poll by the Council on Foreign Relations found that nearly 8 in 10 people grade the country a “C” or lower in protecting the borders from illegal entries.

The dissatisfaction crossed party lines more than any other international issue in the January survey of 1,000 American adults. The poll also found that the percent of Americans giving an “F” grade on protecting the borders rose to 30 percent, up from 24 percent six months earlier.

While Mr. Fox and Mr. Bush said they made some progress on immigration and security, Mr. Harper and Mr. Bush didn’t reach any accord on two bilateral sticking points: an ongoing fight over U.S. restrictions on Canadian softwood lumber imports and new U.S. regulations requiring all travelers to show a passport to enter the United States.

Mr. Harper said he understands Mr. Bush is constrained by the law Congress passed requiring passportlike documents for entry into the United States. He said the two leaders agreed that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Canadian Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day will meet to try to work out a compromise.

For his part, Mr. Bush said Mr. Harper “made it very clear” how damaging the restrictions could be for Canada’s economy, and promised to work with both Mexico and Canada to come up with standards.

The meeting was the one-year checkup after 2005’s meeting in Waco, Texas, at which the three governments announced the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America. Since that first meeting, Mr. Harper has become prime minister. By next year’s meeting in Canada, Mr. Fox will have relinquished the Mexican presidency.

This year the leaders agreed to create a North American Competitiveness Council and to cooperate in the instance of a pandemic, particularly an outbreak of the avian flu.

Mr. Bush referred to the three nations as “the neighborhood,” and Mr. Harper echoed Mr. Bush’s recent call to Americans to reject protectionism and isolationism.

We cannot afford the politics of isolation,” Mr. Harper said.

The three men stood on a stage in an indoor tennis court at one of Cancun’s resort hotels and took two questions each from Mexican, American and Canadian reporters.

Mr. Bush also dodged one of those questions about whether sanctions are the next step if Iran defies a United Nations 30-day deadline to comply on its nuclear program. Instead he backed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s efforts in Europe this week to shore up the coalition looking to pressure Iran.

“We agree on a goal, now the question is, how do we work together to achieve that goal,” Mr. Bush said.

The president did offer U.S. assistance for victims of yesterday’s earthquake in Iran.

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