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Ahead of summit, promising ties unfulfilled

Presidents Bush, Fox, and Canada's new prime minister meet in Cancún, Mexico Thursday.

By Danna HarmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 30, 2006



CANCúN, MEXICO

"Los Dos Amigos," everyone called them then. They slapped each other's backs, made jokes, gave each other custom-made cowboy boots, and toasted what was to be the beginning of a great friendship between neighbors.

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But that was more than five years ago, when the newly inaugurated President Bush dropped in for a friendly visit to the newly inaugurated Mexican President Vicente Fox's family ranch.

Thursday marks the first time in a year that the two leaders have had a face-to-face meeting, and a different sort of atmosphere is expected as they sit down with newly elected Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Cancun for two days of talks.

Bush is in his second term, heading into the midterm elections. Fox, who is barred constitutionally from seeking a second term, will step down after July elections here. And yet the friendship that was to have characterized their administrations - and was expected to be the basis of major immigration initiatives - never really materialized.

Despite the expected cheerful appearances before the cameras, this summit is likely to be marked by an underlying tone of unfulfilled promise.

When Fox took office in 2000 one of his top foreign policy goals was to win sweeping US immigration reform in favor of millions of Mexicans working illegally across the border. Fox's then-Foreign Secretary Jorge Castañeda referred to the plan as "the whole enchilada."

In Bush - the Texan who understood border issues, made his first foreign trip as President to Mexico, and pledged to reform immigration - Fox felt he had a partner.

But then came 9/11 - to which Fox, Washington felt, responded late with expressions of solidarity - and soon after, Mexico's opposition at the UN Security Council to the war in Iraq. Relations tensed. And, as the US turned its focus toward the war on terror, it turned away from Latin America. Security fears meanwhile led to a tightening of all US borders, and Mexicans began worrying that the dreams of being welcomed into the US legally someday were only getting farther away.

While other issues are expected to be raised at the trilateral summit - among them trade, labor disputes (particularly between the US and Canada over lumber tariffs), and the rising influence of China in the region - the main topic on the table, and on everyone's mind, remains immigration.

The decision by the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday to adopt a comprehensive immigration bill, complete with a serious guest worker program that could eventually legalize some 2 million Mexican illegal immigrants has been received well in Mexico. It has given new hope that a solution may yet be found for many of the estimated 6 million illegal Mexican immigrants in the US today, and the approximately 400,000 that sneak through the border every year looking for jobs.

But the journey to realizing that bill is expected to be long, with battles that need to be fought both within the Senate as it takes up the proposals this week - and later as the Senate turns to squaring its final bill with a far more conservative immigration bill passed by the Congress last December. Bush, a vocal supporter of comprehensive reform together with a guest worker program, will nonetheless be likely to impress upon Fox that Mexico also has work to do before a final bill is passed and will ask for more commitment to fixing the root causes of illegal immigration. Mexico's recent adoption of a new immigration policy that calls for creation of economic and housing programs that would lure Mexican workers back home has been praised by Bush.

So too, have Mexican efforts to stem the rising violence at the border. Despite a sharp increase in drug trafficking along the border, US officials have stressed that cooperation between the US and Mexicans on the drug war front is actually improving.

Earlier this month, US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Mexican Interior Minister Carlos Abascal met in Texas to announce a plan to jointly respond to border crime. The plan calls for immediate communication and response, "bilateral coordination of investigations" and "appropriate patrolling of the border region."

Still, years of disappointment with any real movement on immigration reform seem to have tempered Fox's expectations. "If the full Congress ultimately approves the [Senate Judiciary Committee's] proposal it would be good news, but of course now we just have the start," President Fox's chief spokesman, Rubén Aguilar, told a news conference Tuesday, downplaying the Senate committee's action. "It's headed in the right direction, but from Mexico's point of view it doesn't resolve the entire problem."

Ms. Harman is Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.

Topping the agenda

• US punitive tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber imports.

• Border security and drug detection.

• Employment status of illegal immigrants.

• Review 2005 agreement to improve US-Mexican customs practices to expedite trade.

Source: Associated Press

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