Bush, Fox agree to summit next year on border issues
Changing policy on immigration high on U.S. leader's agenda
By G. ROBERT HILLMAN / The Dallas Morning News
SANTIAGO, Chile – President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox agreed Sunday to meet in Washington early next year to map out a detailed, multipronged strategy addressing the thorny issues of immigration, security and economic development along the U.S.-Mexican border.
Mr. Fox, who suggested the summit, said the two leaders could then "finish off some of these issues we've been discussing, perhaps putting them in the shape of some form of agreement."
Neither president, however, indicated when the Washington summit might be set, its format or what might be accomplished. And neither took any questions during a brief meeting with reporters on the sidelines of the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
Later, at an evening news conference with Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, Mr. Bush vowed to press ahead with immigration legislation on Capitol Hill back in Washington.
"You asked me what my tactics are," he told a reporter. "I'm going to find supporters on the Hill to move it."
In a television interview, Mr. Fox suggested the new consultations could take place by the end of March. And a senior U.S. administration official offered a similar timetable.
"Effectively, it would be a follow-on to the meeting we had today," said the official, briefing reporters on the condition of anonymity. "It would be focused on looking more broadly at the migration question, looking at how you improve competitiveness in North America and how you improve security in North America."
Meanwhile, the official reiterated Mr. Bush's determination to push ahead with his plan to create a temporary worker program that could offer legal status to millions of undocumented workers, mostly from Mexico, who are already in the United States or plan to come.
The administration has already renewed consultations with members of Congress, the official said, and Mr. Bush intends to place the overhaul of U.S. immigration law high on his agenda for the new Congress.
"It's an issue that he's committed to," the official said.
Since his re-election Nov. 2, Mr. Bush has conferred on immigration matters at the White House with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who could take the lead in Congress, perhaps along with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
Both senators are steeped in the issue, and their embrace of the president's
immigration proposal, or something close to it, would be seen as a major
coup for the White House.
Still, the issue is not only complicated but also polarizing, drawing opposition from both ends of the political spectrum.
Many conservative Republicans, particularly in the House, are steadfastly opposed to any immigration changes that might offer undocumented workers legal status.
And the fallout of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks still lingers, sparking continued calls for tighter U.S. border controls, particularly with Mexico.
"There are no immigration policy solutions out there which make everybody happy," said Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington.
The real question, he said, is how much of the political capital that Mr. Bush says he's earned with his re-election will be invested in the issue of immigration "because that's going to cost."
"Almost anyone from any point of view on immigration agrees on one thing," Mr. Suro added. "The current system is not working for anybody."
Mr. Bush and Mr. Fox, who enjoyed good rapport when they both took office about four years ago, drifted apart on their immigration talks after the Sept. 11 attacks and split further when Mr. Fox balked at Mr. Bush's decision to go to war with Iraq.
On Sunday, they appeared at ease with each other in their meeting with reporters. Still, Mr. Bush described their private discussions as "frank and constructive," the sort of diplomatic language that can indicate some lingering bumps.
The two leaders had "spent a great deal of time talking about the immigration issue," Mr. Bush said, and he had reminded Mr. Fox that he had campaigned on it.
"I made it very clear, my position – that we need to make sure that where there's a willing worker and a willing employer, that that job ought to be filled legally in cases where Americans will not fill that job," he said, adding that "reasonable immigration policies" would help secure the border.
"Finally," Mr. Bush said, "I assured him that we want people from Mexico treated with respect and dignity."
Mr. Bush did not detail his temporary worker initiative, which he proposed in January but which languished with little attention during his re-election campaign.
Nor did he suggest any sort of strategic timetable for proceeding.
In their meeting with reporters, Mr. Fox never mentioned immigration directly, preferring instead to couch the issue in economic and security terms.
"Mexico wants to fulfill its responsibility to make its economy grow, make it stronger, to have more jobs in Mexico. That is our first priority," Mr. Fox said.
Calling his relationship with Mr. Bush strong and "very optimistic," Mr. Fox said, "I think that we will continue to build on it to make this partnership even stronger."
In an interview later on CNN, the Mexican president said he was confident of Mr. Bush's firm will to proceed on immigration reform, but he noted that other proposals were being offered by both Republican and Democratic members of Congress, including Mr. McCain.
"I think the elements are there," Mr. Fox said. "What we all need is to come out with an intelligent, innovative way of proceeding, to the benefit of both [countries] and specifically to the benefit of security."
Changes in U.S. immigration law "to legalize or document those who are
in the United States and that have a job," he said, are the "best contribution
we can make to security on the border, because then we'll have the rules
of the game clear."
Mr. McCain, in an interview Thursday after Mr. Bush had left Washington, said he was confident the president was pushing the immigration issue back to the front burner. He said he expected to hear more about it during the president's State of the Union address to Congress shortly after he is sworn in to a second term on Jan. 20.
The Nov. 2 approval of Proposition 200 in Arizona, which requires proof of citizenship for those seeking public benefits or registering to vote, was another indication of Americans' deep frustration with immigration issues, Mr. McCain said.
"The message is very clear. ...They are incredibly frustrated at this situation," he said of voters. "We have shootouts on our freeways between the coyotes. We have drop houses with a couple hundred people found in the most abominable conditions. We have children, little babies dying in the desert. ...
We have an intolerable burden on our health care facilities.
"It's a terribly serious situation. And they are frustrated by the lack of the issue being addressed. And they're right."