Bush, Fox Settle Short-Term Visa Spat
Mexican Visitors Would Bypass Being Photographed, Fingerprinted at Border
By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
CRAWFORD, Tex., March 6 -- President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox reached an agreement in principle Saturday that will allow millions of Mexicans with short-term visas to cross the border without being fingerprinted and photographed by U.S. authorities.
One possible substitute security measure that the administration is considering would be issuing the short-term visitors, many of whom work on the U.S. side or have a relative there, a radio-frequency transponder similar to the EZPass toll-road device.
The concession, announced after Fox stayed overnight at Bush's ranch, represents an effort by the president to promote business and improve relations at a time when Congress is refusing to take up his plan to help Mexicans to work legally in the United States.
"Mexico and the United States are more than neighbors," Bush said as he and Fox stood side by side at a news conference. "We are partners in building a safer, more democratic and more prosperous hemisphere."
The two left unresolved the most pressing issues facing the two countries, including illegal immigration, water owed to the United States under a 1944 treaty and cooperation on energy production.
Fox stayed about 20 hours. The two took a long walk, and Bush gave Fox what he calls a "windshield tour" of the ranch -- that is, from inside the white Ford pickup truck the Secret Service lets Bush drive on his 1,600-acre ranch. The presidents, along with first lady Laura Bush and Fox's wife, Marta Sahagun, dined Friday night on bass that Bush said he caught in a pond on the property.
The meeting was aimed at repairing the rocky relations produced by Fox's decision to oppose the war in Iraq. Some members of Bush's war Cabinet remain bitter about Fox's stance, but Bush was eager to publicly put the disagreement behind them as he prepares election-year appeals to Hispanics, the nation's fastest-growing voting bloc.
Bush, stung by Republican opposition to the immigration proposal he made in January, allowed Fox to announce the planned change in entry requirements for visitors from Mexico who carry visas good for three days at a time.
"We welcome the news that was confirmed today with regard to visitors to the U.S. from Mexico," Fox said at the news conference. "Now they will not have to be photographed or fingerprinted."
Administration officials said that after security details are worked out, Mexicans on the 72-hour visas will be exempted from the requirement that anyone entering the country submit to being photographed and fingerprinted. Advocates for immigrants said the requirement would hurt businesses along the border, including ones in South Texas, and could cause long delays at the border.
About 6.8 million people hold such visas, known as laser visas or border-crossing cards, which entail a background check and require the visitor to remain within 25 miles of the border.
The biometric requirements began Jan. 5 at airports and seaports, and were to go into effect at border crossings by Dec. 31. Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said officials are trying to integrate two computer systems so that the visa, which has biometric information embedded in it, can be read at land border crossings.
Fox has pushed for three years for a liberalization of U.S. immigration laws, but that became a lower priority for the Bush administration and a tougher political sell after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Three of the hijackers had expired visas.
In 2001, the two leaders were widely called the "two amigos." Bush's first international trip was to Fox's ranch, and Fox was Bush's first honoree at a state dinner. But then chills in the relationship caused the reciprocal ranch visit to be postponed for a year and a half.
Authorities on U.S.-Mexican relations said the meeting was mainly about cosmetics, and creating a different climate. Denise Dresser, a political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, said the border-crossing announcement resulted from the need for both sides to show results.
"Bush is interested in showing a Hispanic constituency that he was willing to take some small step to better the lives of Mexicans," Dresser said. Fox has invested considerable capital in trying to work out an immigration agreement with Bush but has little to show for it, Dresser said.
Democrats sought to portray the summit as an expensive exercise in pandering. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), Bush's expected opponent, said in a statement, "Latinos can tell it's an election year because George W. Bush is finally paying attention to them. . . . Latinos and Latin America will not be used or regarded as an afterthought in my administration."
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), who is often mentioned as a possible vice presidential choice for Kerry, said in a telephone interview that the agreement about short-term visas is "just reversing what was a bad decision, so it is not a gain."
"If this was more than a gigantic photo op, he would have brought in Republican congressional leaders so they could talk to President Fox about an immigration bill," Richardson said.
Bush's immigration proposal would allow millions of undocumented Mexicans now in the states to work legally as long as they eventually returned to Mexico. It would make it possible for other Mexicans to enter as long as they used a computerized registry to line up a job. But liberals on Capitol Hill said the plan does not go far enough because it provides no track toward citizenship, and conservatives said it would reward illegal behavior by allowing undocumented workers to register.
"I put forth what I think is a very reasonable proposal, and a humane proposal -- one that is not amnesty but, in fact, recognizes that there are good, honorable, hardworking people here doing jobs Americans won't do," Bush said.