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Bush to Visit Mexican President Immigration, Drugs, Free Trade to Top Policy Discussions

By Mary Jordan

As President Bush comes to Mexico to meet with President Vicente Fox Friday, millions of illegal workers in the United States like those from Tzintzuntzan rank high on the agenda, along with drug smuggling and free trade. Mexico views immigration as the most important issue to be discussed. And the feeling here is that the United States, more than at any time in decades, is ready to negotiate a better deal for its undocumented babysitters, construction workers, gardeners, office cleaners and fishermen.

Illegal immigration has been a hot issue for years in the United States, which hosts an estimated 5 million undocumented workers -- more than half of whom are from Mexico. The problem often has been discussed with shrillness and finger-pointing as critics spoke of threats to the sovereignty of national borders, undermined wages and jobs robbed from U.S. workers. Those worries have not disappeared. But as American prosperity soared, the value of these workers seemed more evident. As a result, the construction, service and agricultural industries are lobbying Congress for a way to get more of these people into the United States legally.

Now, there are two new presidents with new ideas. Bush, who saw the issue up close as governor of Texas, where 30 percent of the population is Hispanic, has said immigration should be viewed as an opportunity. Fox, who took office Dec. 1, has launched a crusade to get more respect for undocumented Mexican workers in the United States. He has described them as “heroes” and stood at highway checkpoints along the border for several days in December shaking migrants’ hands as they returned home for Christmas. Eventually, he says, the border should allow free passage in both directions.

“The border is already open, to products, merchandise, services, capital,” he said Thursday during an on-line discussion on “We must have a long-term vision, coherent with this situation, by constructing step by step the possibility in the future to open the borders to the free flow of people.”

Many Mexican officials want a halt to the construction of border walls and barbed-wire fences between the two countries. Tightened U.S. security at the border has been blamed for nearly 400 deaths in the last year as Mexicans try more dangerous routes, often drowning or dying of dehydration in the desert. There is also talk in both countries of a new amnesty program to give legal status to some long-established, tax-paying Mexican workers who live in a shadowy world -- officially invisible, ripe for abuse by employers, afraid to report crime or get care from a doctor.

Prominent Democrats and Republicans in Congress are calling for a guest worker program that would give more Mexicans a limited time to work legally at certain jobs in the United States. Some of these proposals would affect more than a quarter-million Mexicans.

Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), chairman of the Hispanic Caucus, is leading a group of 12 members of Congress here Monday, the latest in a parade of American officials meeting with Fox. But Reyes, who spent 26 years with the Border Patrol, said “new thinking” on immigration could evaporate if unemployment rises in the United States and that the time is ripe for a “comprehensive long-term strategy.”

“No one wants a border that is out of control, where there are no designated points of entry, where we don’t know who is coming in,” said Reyes.