- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2007

MERIDA, Mexico — Mexican President Felipe Calderon yesterday said he doesn’t know whether relatives, who he said work as vegetable pickers in the United States, are there legally.

“I do have family in the United States, and what I can tell you is that these are people who work and respect that country,” he said at a press conference with President Bush here yesterday. “They pay their taxes to the government. These are people who work in the fields with vegetables. They probably handle that which you eat, the lettuce.”

“I have not seen them in a long time and do not know their migratory status,” he said.

Mr. Calderon had mentioned his family as American vegetable pickers during his presidential campaign last year. “How many of you have family in the United States?” he asked at a campaign rally in April, as reported then by USA Today. Nearly every hand in the crowd of thousands went up. “I have a cousin and brother-in-law there, too.”

With one of every 10 living persons born in Mexico now in the United States, Mr. Calderon’s disclosure was not surprising. Speaking through an interpreter, Mr. Calderon said half of the 4 million people from his home state of Michoacan now live in the United States.

What happens to them under a future immigration bill is a sensitive issue, and a key dividing line in the growing debate.

U.S. businessmen say they depend on the cheap labor, and Mexico needs the jobs for its refugees and the money they send home. Last year, Mexicans working in the United States sent back $20 billion — a sum that rivals oil sales as the country’s major source of foreign income.

Mr. Bush supports enacting a law that would give legal status to most illegal aliens, offering them a chance for U.S. citizenship. The bill the U.S. Senate passed last year, which Mr. Bush blessed as “a good immigration bill,” would allow hundreds of thousands of new foreign workers to emigrate each year with the opportunity to earn citizenship.

Some U.S. lawmakers oppose a guest-worker program entirely, saying it would depress U.S. workers’ wages; other congressmen say workers should be allowed to emigrate for a set period of time. Mr. Calderon said he wants to see those workers who come to the U.S. eventually return to Mexico.

“We want them to come back; we want them to find jobs here in Mexico,” he said. “We miss them. These are our best people. These are bold people, they’re young, they’re strong, they’re talented.”

The Washington Times last month reported that a group of women from Tecalpulco have created a Web page urging the United States to enforce its immigration laws, forcing their husbands to return home.

In poignant public messages to their husbands, the women told of children who feel abandoned, and worry that their men have forsaken their families for other women and to enjoy life in America.

“You said you were only going to Arizona to get money for our house, but now you have been away and did not come back when your sister got married,” one woman wrote to a man she called Pedro. “Oh how I worry that you have another woman! Don’t you love me? You told me you love me.”

Immigration has been a dominant issue in conversations between Mr. Bush and Mr. Calderon in this city on the Yucatan Peninsula over the past two days. Mr. Calderon chided Mr. Bush publicly Tuesday for approving the construction of 850 miles of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, and yesterday he said he is worried about the rights of illegal aliens crossing the border.

Mr. Calderon, who strikes a far less flamboyant profile than his predecessor, Vicente Fox, has spent time in the U.S. as a student, earning a master’s degree in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He speaks English well enough to have not needed a translator to understand yesterday’s questions from American reporters traveling with Mr. Bush.

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