- The Washington Times - Monday, June 11, 2007

MEXICO CITY — Congress’ failure to enact a new immigration law is a blow to pro-U.S. Mexican President Felipe Calderon as he faces his toughest challenges since taking office in December.

After a strong start to his presidency, Mr. Calderon is struggling to defeat violent gangs that smuggle drugs across the U.S. border, and his government is embroiled in tough talks with Mexico’s Congress on tax reform.

Winning a relaxation of U.S. immigration laws has been the main foreign-policy goal of Mexico for years and would earn credit for Mr. Calderon, a conservative with a Harvard degree who won election in July by less than one percentage point.

“Resolution, or at least some progress in addressing the immigration issue, would have been a big boost to the government of Mexico,” said Peter Hakim, head of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.

Republicans and Democrats blocked a U.S. Senate vote Thursday on a bipartisan bill backed by President Bush that included tougher border security measures and a plan to legalize most of the country’s estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens.

Although some in Congress say they will try to revive the bill with Mr. Bush’s help, others insist the effort is dead.

Mr. Calderon, who was praised in Mexico for berating Mr. Bush over immigration at talks in March, said Friday: “It should be deplored how the discussions in the U.S. Senate have not been able to follow a swift course and quickly win approval of this issue.”

Although not as close to Washington as his predecessor Vicente Fox, Mr. Calderon is an advocate of free trade who is seen as a natural ally of Mr. Bush against leftist leaders such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

But Mexico, where almost everyone has a friend or relative living in the United States, is upset at Mr. Bush’s inability to make good on promises to better the lives of the millions of Mexicans north of the border.

“It’s a shame because Mexico has been permanently supporting the United States on security and drug trafficking,” said Sen. Jose Luis Lobato, an opposition member of the Mexican Senate’s foreign relations committee.

Mr. Calderon has sent thousands of troops to fight drug cartels in rural Mexico in a war that should cut the flow of cocaine and marijuana across the border.

But Mexico’s narco-gunmen have hit back at police and soldiers, and Mr. Calderon complains that Washington has done little to curb demand for illegal drugs in the United States or the flow of U.S. arms to the cartels.

Twenty-three persons died in drug violence in one day alone last week, and the army is under pressure for the killing of five unarmed civilians at a checkpoint in Sinaloa state.

Apart from the drug war, Mr. Calderon’s other main push is for economic reforms. A former energy minister, he wants to allow more private companies into Mexico’s closed oil sector, and U.S. firms would benefit.

But any hint of foreigners taking control of Mexico’s oil raises nationalist hackles, even though the government has no plans to privatize state energy monopoly Pemex.

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