Pablo Martinez Monsavais  /  AP file
President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox shake hands prior to their bilateral meeting during the Special Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico, on Jan. 12.
By
NBC News
updated 3/4/2004 9:08:23 PM ET 2004-03-05T02:08:23

After a frosty year, relations are finally beginning to thaw between the United States and its neighbor south of the border, Mexico.

When Mexico failed to support the U.S.-led war in Iraq at the UN Security Council last year, communication between the two countries came to a virtual standstill.

But, in a major push toward reconciliation, Mexican President Vicente Fox will be meeting with President Bush at his Crawford ranch on Friday and Saturday.

Fox hopes Mexico’s long-standing cooperation with the U.S. on terrorism and his personal relationship with his "amigo" Bush will help him score wins on his stacked agenda.

With expectations running high in Mexico, Fox will work to make progress on immigration reform, jobs, and other key issues. For Bush, improved relations with Mexico will be a plus heading into an election year in which Hispanic voters are seen as a key voting block.

Immigration reform tops agenda
Bush extended his Crawford invitation to Fox when they met at the Summit of Americas in Monterrey, northern Mexico, this past January.

Shortly before that meeting, Bush announced plans by the White House to grant illegal immigrants temporary work visas in the United States.

Reacting at the time to the White House proposal, Fox welcomed the initiative but said he was hoping for more for the thousands of Mexican migrants who work in the United States.

Since he took office three years ago, Fox has pushed for an immigration agreement that would protect the Mexican nationals crossing the 2,000-mile-long border looking for jobs.

The plan was shelved following the Sept. 11, 2001, because of heightened worry about security in the United States.

Carlos Monsivais, a well-known Mexican intellectual and writer, is skeptical about any positive results from the coming meeting.

"The U.S. Congress is not likely to approve the regularization of the status of Mexican immigrants in the U.S.," Monsivais told NBC News. “This meeting won't produce much more than friendly statements, which should be fine on a personal level, but is not that fine when we are dealing with the relationship between two countries.”

Fox admitted that he does not expect his visit to Crawford to be “decisive" for the immigration agenda.

"The immigration reform won't be resolved during this visit," Fox said during a recent interview on Telemundo. "But we are advancing in that direction, the issue will be reviewed, and Mexico will follow up with its demands of absolute respect to the human rights of the Mexican working people.”

An election in the United States makes it unlikely that real change with be immediate. “An immigration reform in an electoral process is very unlikely," analyst Ana Maria Salazar told NBC, warning that “we shouldn't expect real results from these initiatives” given the sharp-elbowed battle ahead between Bush and the likely Democratic contender, Sen. John Kerry.

Easier entry
However, in another gesture this week aimed at Mexico, the United States said it may make it easier for Mexicans with visas to enter the country.

Under the proposed plan millions of visa-carrying Mexicans who make short visits to America and stay close to the border won't have to be fingerprinted and photographed to get into the country.

Asa Hutchinson, the Homeland Security department's undersecretary for border and transportation, said on Thursday that the revised plan for Mexico is under consideration, but has not been approved yet.

As part of the US-VISIT program started in January, foreigners from certain countries traveling on visas and entering at 115 major airports and 14 seaports are fingerprinted and photographed. 

But, Fox was upset that under the expanded plan, Mexicans would have been photographed and fingerprinted before entering the United States, while Canadians would not.

Mexican border officials and officials in U.S. border communities feared the program could lead to long delays or prompt fewer people to enter the country. Either scenario would hurt local economies that rely on a steady flow of visitors.

Under the plan outlined by the congressional official, Mexicans who have so-called laser visas won't be fingerprinted and photographed provided they stay in the United States no more than three days and remain close to the border. The revised plan would be an important sign of progress for Fox on the immigration front. 

Job losses to Asia
Another sensitive issue is jobs.

“Mexico, the United States, and Canada are loosing jobs to China. We need to gather efforts in order to protect jobs in our three countries, we need to improve our competitiveness to face the challenge," Fox told Telemundo. 

Despite the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that Mexico, the United States and Canada agreed to ten years ago, Mexico has lost thousands of jobs to Asia in the past few years.

China surpassed Mexico as the second-largest exporter to the United States in 2002. The top exporter is Canada. Chinese exports to America grew by 11.9 percent, while Mexican exports dropped to below one percent of the U.S. market.

Outsourcing jobs to China has made increasing economic sense for American employers.  The current wage for a working hour in China is around 59 cents while while a Mexican worker makes $1.47 an hour.

The issue is a concern for the Bush administration as well as for Fox. Analysts say that the  "threat of China," as it's referred to in Mexico, could complicate the political and economic landscape in the 2006 presidential elections.

Fox is also expected to voice complaints about the fate of Mexicans on death row in America, in particular the decision by the state of Oklahoma to execute Mexican national Osvaldo Torres, convicted of a double murder in 1993.

Torres' execution date has been set for May 18, despite a ruling by the UN's International Court of Justice.

Political pressure
Fox is under major pressure to show some accomplishments at home.

According to local newspaper polls, his popularity rating has dropped significantly and many blame that on the anemic 1.3 percent economic growth last year, way below what he had promised. The surveys also showed doubts about his leadership.

Despite the Iraq war fallout, Mexico has been very cooperative with the United States in the war on terrorism and at times Fox has paid that political price for it.  

Mexico was one of the first countries to cancel flights at the U.S.'s behest during the holiday season, despite the apparent lack of evidence of a real and credible security threat.

Fox faced criticism at home for his actions. “You don't have to have all the evidence before acting,” Fox said earlier this week in an interview with the Associated Press, adding that the U.S. concern was “enough for us.”

Fox is hoping that steady loyalty to the United States will be reciprocated and allow him to make the necessary gains to maintain his political viability back in Mexico.

Laura Saravia is the NBC News Mexico City Bureau Chief. Moira Patterson and Federico Adlercreutz, desk editors in the NBC News Mexico City Bureau and Telemundo’s Pedro Sevcec and Rogelio Mora contributed to this article. The Associated Press also contributed to this article.

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