Guest-worker program back on table for US and Mexico

In Mexico City, Powell opens door to immigration changes as border nations try to mend strains of past few years.

When Mexican President Vicente Fox spoke in 2001 of the "whole enchilada" of broad American immigration reform, it caused quite a stir - until the 9/11 attacks put such talk back in the freezer.

Now the idea is back on the table, though in a more modest form than appeared possible in the heady days after President Bush first took office.

This week Secretary of State Colin Powell used a trip to Mexico City to put immigration reform back on the agenda. He says that President Bush's reelection, a new Congress, and increased border security all augur well for immigration reform. But he adds that at best it will be some version of the guest-worker program Mr. Bush proposed in January - not the free movement of people across NAFTA borders that Mr. Fox envisions.

"We are taking little bites of the enchilada," Mr. Powell said Tuesday, borrowing Mr. Fox's metaphor, "and not the whole enchilada at once."

The reemergence of immigration reform is one sign of warming US-Mexico relations after the cool spell that followed Mexico's February 2003 refusal to vote with the US in the United Nations Security Council on war in Iraq. With immigration now solidly a security issue for the US, observers don't foresee the relationship being driven by a grand shared vision. But most say they expect relations to pull out of their doldrums, mainly because unabated economic and social integration demand they do.

"The lesson of four years of Bush is that disappointment and estrangement can't last too long, the two [countries] are condemned to cooperate," says Jorge Chabat, an expert in US-Mexico relations at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE) in Mexico City.

Noting Mexico's disappointment at being forgotten after 9/11, and Bush's disappointment at Mexico's Security Council vote, he says: "Relations remain good because they can't be bad - but that doesn't mean we see eye to eye or will on some important issues any time soon."

Still, experts like Mr. Chabat do see some positive indicators - from Bush's reelection and stepped-up Mexican cooperation on border security to a changing posture among Mexicans toward the US - to suggest a turn to closer and more mature ties between the two neighbors.

A recent survey of Mexican opinion completed by CIDE, for example, suggested that Mexicans are neither as nationalistic nor as suspicious of the United States as conventional wisdom suggests.

In fact, despite their dim view of the Iraq war and US immigration policy, Mexicans place the US as the foreign country they most admire, tied with Japan.

Officials on both sides of the border agree that the next year, free of major elections both north and south of the Rio Grande, should allow the two neighbors to get back to issues that have been declared priorities by both.

Immigration tops the list.

During his visit Powell said he didn't want to "overpromise," but that Bush would give "high priority" to creating a guest-worker program for hundreds of thousands of the estimated 10 million Mexicans working and living without documentation in the US.

A guest-worker program inspires little enthusiasm in Mexico, however, since it falls far short of the broad liberalization that Fox outlined in visits to the US after his election in 2000. From the Mexican perspective, a relationship that embraces the free flow of goods and capital should graduate to the free movement of people as well.

Still, the past few years have taught Fox to trim his sails, Mexican experts say. "Fox painted himself into a corner with his talk of a full-fledged immigration reform, and he's unlikely to make such sweeping proposals a second time around," says Luis Rubio, director general of the Center for Research in Development in Mexico City.

Getting even a guest-worker program passed won't be easy, experts north of the border agree. "Bush is on record supporting some kind of guest program that would give 400,000 to 500,000 undocumented workers temporary legal status, with the option of using that time to apply for a green card," says Sidney Weintraub, an expert in US-Mexico relations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "But I'm not at all sure that the conservatives in his own party will agree to that."

Indeed, while Powell speaks of improved prospects for passage with Bush's reelection and a more Republican Congress, others insist resistance will only be stronger. "Several of the new members of the Senate are former congressmen with a record on immigration, and if anything they are tougher than the people they are replacing," says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington.

Some observers predict the president will still push the initiative, prompted by Election Day polls showing that 44 percent of Hispanic voters chose Bush, up from 35 percent in 2000. But Mr. Krikorian says those ring no truer than the exit polls that showed John Kerry winning the election.

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