MEXICO'S president takes his case for migration accord to U.S. Congress

Monday, September 3rd 2001, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ Mexican President Vicente Fox sets out Tuesday for Washington, hoping to sell the U.S. Congress on the first ``integrated'' approach to migration: temporary work visas for Mexicans, amnesty for undocumented migrants and U.S. aid for their impoverished hometowns.

Despite the unprecedented close relationship that has grown between Fox and President Bush, who is playing host to Fox at his first state dinner, the visit really has as much to do with the two nations' congresses as with their presidents.

Fox needs a victory on the migration issues to show Mexico's restive, opposition-dominated Congress that he's making progress on some fronts. And, in a planned address to a joint session, he needs to convince the U.S. Congress that his plan will stem the tide of migration _ not turn it into a flood.

``Fox is going to put to the test all the democratic credentials and the confidence in his government he says he has won in the U.S.,'' columnist Roberto Zamarripa wrote of the trip in the daily newspaper Reforma.

The problem for Fox, Zamarripa noted, ``is a conflict of timing.''

``The 2002 elections are far more important for U.S. legislators than the time frame of a new Mexican government trying to get off on the right foot.''

Fox had to endure severe questioning during his state-of-the-nation speech to Mexico's Congress on Saturday, where opposition legislators held up signs reading ``Blah, blah, blah'' and accused him of accomplishing little during his first nine months in office.

Moreover, Fox has had to defend his new, closer relationship with the United States at a time when the U.S. economic downturn has cost hundreds of thousands of jobs in Mexico, quashing what Fox had promised would be the economic fruit of cooperation.

The visit also comes as other thorny bilateral issues have surfaced for Fox.

U.S. agricultural imports have helped spark a crisis in Mexican farming, the U.S. Congress continues to stall on allowing Mexican trucks to use the country's roadways, and the United States is demanding repayment of a water debt from drought-stricken northern Mexico.

Migration _ like water, trucking and trade disputes _ is a political hot potato that the U.S. Congress would rather not deal with. On the other hand, Fox's administration sees a migration accord as a chance to right historic wrongs and change the whole bilateral relationship.

Fox's foreign secretary, Jorge Castaneda, said Mexico is seeking a massive work visa program, better conditions for Mexicans already in the United States, more border safety programs and aid programs for poor Mexican regions where migration runs high.

``This should be seen as a package, as an integrated whole, where there won't be agreement on any one of the points until there is agreement on them all,'' Castaneda said last week.

He stressed ``this is not an all-or-nothing posture,'' and later acknowledged that few concrete announcements are expected during the Washington visit.

``We're not going to finish it this week or next week,'' Castaneda said. ``It's going to be many months of difficult negotiations, but I'm confident at the end we'll reach a historic agreement for Mexico.''

The question remains as to how long Fox can wait. Some speculate that he and Bush may announce just the guest-worker program, leaving the thornier issues for later.

``Fox needs a victory,'' wrote political analyst Denise Dresser. ``But he would do better to reject a partial agreement, and wait for a more inclusive accord.''

Fox is a good salesman, but he'll face a hard sell. ``Congress will be receptive, it will applaud,'' wrote Zamarripa.

But, he noted, ``it's clear that Fox can't achieve the same kind of folksy, backslapping relationship with the U.S. Congress that he has with Bush.''

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