Image: Felipe Calderon
Alfredo Estrella  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Mexican president Felipe Calderon delivers a speech in December in Mexico City.
updated 2/8/2008 7:20:08 PM ET 2008-02-09T00:20:08

Mexican President Felipe Calderon's first trip to the United States next week is a high-stakes effort to shape the immigration debate during the U.S. presidential race.

Calderon won't meet President Bush or any of his would-be successors this trip, but will make his voice heard in major U.S. cities at a time when both Republican and Democratic candidates are carefully calibrating their positions on hot-button issues, such as the border wall, deportations, guest-worker programs and driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.

Many undocumented Mexican migrants who have raised families and built careers in the United States are facing a much bleaker future as federal, state and local governments crack down. And the election year isn't helping, according to Calderon, who has accused U.S. presidential candidates of using migrants as "symbolic hostages in their speeches and strategies."

"I am especially worried about the growing harassment and frank persecution of Mexicans in the United States in recent days," Calderon told Mexico's migrant assistance agency.

Calderon instructed Mexican consuls across the United States to triple efforts to promote positive contributions of Mexicans north of the border. "The key is to neutralize this strategy of confrontation and discrimination that forms part of U.S. society's mistaken perception," he said.

What Calderon wants is for the U.S. Congress to allow more Mexicans to live and work legally north of the border. But such reform is politically futile this year, and his visit could backfire if it drives the controversial immigration issue back to the forefront. Senator John McCain, the likely Republican nominee, already must defend himself to conservatives who view him as too liberal on immigration.

On the Democratic side, exit polls showed Hispanics backing Hillary Rodham Clinton by a 2-1 margin in Tuesday's primaries, even though Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan immigrant, was alone in supporting driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. But as both Clinton and Obama look toward the general election, Calderon's presence could prompt a hardening of their positions as well.

Calderon has not publicly expressed a preference for any candidate, saying he does not meddle in other countries' affairs. But he has openly accused them of "swaggering, macho and anti-Mexican posturing" attitudes.

And in a pre-trip interview with the Los Angeles-based Spanish-language newspaper Hoy, Calderon called on the next U.S. president to have a "broader vision — the ability to analyze the migration phenomenon more calmly and objectively, less emotionally and more rationally."

Immigration issue not going away
Calderon's coast-to-coast trip, beginning Sunday, with stops in New York, Boston, Chicago, Sacramento, California, and Los Angeles, "allows him to refresh in the minds of the candidates of both political parties that the immigration issue is not going to go away and that he'll be back in 2009," said Riordan Roett, director of Western Hemisphere studies at Johns Hopkins University.

He will meet with some political allies, such as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has spoken out against extending the border fence, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Hispanic leader who endorsed New York Senator Hillary Clinton. He also will meet with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and deliver a speech at Harvard University.

Criticizing U.S. attitudes on immigration is a must for any Mexican president, but Calderon also has focused more than his predecessor Vicente Fox on improving conditions at home, promising to create more jobs at home and announcing large infrastructure projects and other initiatives aimed at helping the Mexican economy grow and resist a U.S. economic downturn.

Calderon has 66 percent job approval according to a poll in late January. Ministering to the 11 million Mexicans living in the United States can help maintain this popularity as he launches the second year of his six-year term.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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