When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits Mexico Thursday, she'll turn her attention to America's southern neighbor - which President Bush said would be a priority of his first term, but which was summarily relegated to the back of the filing drawer after the 9/11 attacks.
Now the White House is showing renewed interest in issues that involve the US's closest neighbors - immigration, border security, and trade chief among them. One of Secretary Rice's top objectives is to pave the way for a day-long meeting later this month in Texas to which Mr. Bush has invited his fellow NAFTA leaders, President Vicente Fox of Mexico and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin.
The Rice visit and Texas summit come amid growing concern that distances are growing between the United States and its neighbors, both within NAFTA and throughout Latin America.
"There's a feeling that the area is of great importance to the US, but has been neglected by the administration as it has focused on the Middle East and 9/11 security concerns," says Robert Pastor, director of American University's Center for North American Studies in Washington.
At the same time, problems that connect the US to its neighbors have not gone away. Apprehensions of illegal immigrants along the southern border increased nearly 25 percent last year to more than 1 million, suggesting that more people are trying to enter the country illegally - and that perhaps more are making it past a decade's worth of increased border surveillance.
Bush has repeated recently his intention to seek a temporary guest-worker program as a way to address illegal immigration. But one challenge that will confront US officials as they seek to address this and other issues is the growing disconnect between priorities for the US and those of its neighbors.
State Department officials say Rice, and later in the month Bush, will press border security issues. But Mr. Fox, facing a public that believes he has gotten nothing from his touted friendship with Bush, is more interested in measures to improve the conditions and rights of Mexicans living in the US. And Mr. Martin is more focused on the US ban on Canadian beef while still smarting from Bush's upbraiding in a post-reelection visit to Canada over Martin's opposition to the US missile defense system.
But in announcing the March 23 Texas summit, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the meeting would also focus on promoting regional prosperity - a focus that will fall on friendlier ears.
Yet even if Bush perseveres in pressing immigration reform at home, most experts believe prompt action is unlikely on such a polarizing issue. "He's going to have great difficulty even within his own ranks" of the Republican Party, says Miguel Tinker Salas, an expert in Mexico and Latin America at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. "The issue has been all the more politicized in the interest of the war on terrorism," he adds, "so I don't see any immediate movement towards a guest-worker program, for example, even though that is what Bush and Fox want."
At the same time, Mr. Pastor adds, "there's no real solution to the immigration problem without reducing the development gap between Mexico and the US" - a point that would seem to support an emphasis on regional prosperity.
But Pastor, who was a vice chair of a tri-national task force on the future of North America, says that so far he sees little from the White House suggesting a serious effort to address the wealth gap. The decade-old NAFTA was designed in part to reduce income discrepancies, but he says that while the trade pact has been successful at expanding trade and investment, "the income gap between Mexico and its northern neighbors has actually widened."
The tri-national task force will unveil its findings next week, only days after another task force on US policies in the Western Hemisphere was published by the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. Together the two efforts show the degree of concern about the drift between the US and its neighbors.
"[T]he United States and Latin America have increasingly been pursuing different agendas - and growing apart in many ways," concludes the Inter-American report, before proposing a common agenda on immigration, trade, anticrime efforts, and democratic governance.