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Mexico's president backs Bush

With his controversial immigration policy dominating the agenda, President Bush arrived in Mexico Monday to meet with President Vicente Fox and other regional leaders. NBC's Norah O'Donnell interviews Fox about the Bush proposal.
Mexican President Vicente Fox speaks after meeting Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin at the Summit of the Americas in Monterrey on Sunday.Andrew Winning / Reuters
/ Source: NBC News

With his controversial immigration policy dominating the agenda, President Bush arrived here Monday to meet with Mexican President Vicente Fox and other world leaders gathered for a two-day Summit of the Americas.

The proposal, unveiled last week, gives Bush a dramatic olive branch at the gathering of the 34 democratically elected leaders in the Western Hemisphere.

Despite two years of strained relations between the United States and Mexico, Fox, for one, told NBC News the proposal is "a very important step forward."

The endorsement by Fox could give Bush a big boost at home as he tries to sell his proposal to Congress and to gain political support from Hispanics in the 2004 presidential election.

President Fox will ask for 'whole enchilada'
Despite Fox's support, the Mexican leader made clear he plans to personally ask Bush at this summit to make some changes, including increasing the number of visas and green cards so more Mexicans can find legal work in the U.S.

A dozen or more day laborers swarm a van, seeking work from the driver, outside the entrance to a Home Depot store, an area where undocumented immigrants are among those who gather for potential employers, in Los Angeles' Hollywood district Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2004. President Bush called Wednesday for a major overhaul of America's immigration system to grant legal status to millions of undocumented workers in the United States, saying the current program is not working.Reed Saxon / AP

The new plan to overhaul U.S. immigration laws comes nearly three years after Bush first promised Fox that he would make reforms.

Mexico's former foreign affairs minister Jorge Castaneda has said Mexico would not settle for anything less than "the whole enchilada."

Asked if Bush's plan is the whole enchilada, Fox told NBC News, "It is part of the enchilada, we have to work for more yet. More enchilada."

President Bush's proposed temporary worker program would give millions of undocumented workers in the United States legal status for at least three years.

Foreign workers would also be eligible for the work visas. Such workers would enjoy rights given to U.S. citizens, including a minimum wage and Social Security benefits, plus the ability to travel home without fear of being blocked from returning to the United States.

Amnesty for workers is not part of the plan
But Bush has insisted his proposal should not immediately naturalize illegal workers. "I oppose amnesty, placing undocumented workers on the automatic path toward citizenship," he said.   

Bush's opposition to full-fledged amnesty pleases some conservatives in the president's own party, but Democrats and some immigration experts have said roadblocks to citizenship could derail the proposal in Congress.

Critics like Maria Cardona, vice president of the New Democratic Network, said the Bush proposal amounts to a slow deportation process.

"This is yet another broken promise on behalf of this administration offered in the guise of a gift to the Hispanic community," Cardona said.  
Checks home amount to $12 billion in 2003
But Fox sided with Bush, arguing Mexican migrants don't want U.S citizenship. "We agree with the rejection of amnesty," Fox said. "These workers are not going to become American citizens, nor do they want U.S. citizenship." More than half of the estimated 8-12 million undocumented workers in the U.S. are Mexican.

There may be an economic motive behind Fox's insistence against amnesty. Workers who become U.S. citizens can invite their families to join them in America and thus have less incentive to send home money. Any drop in money sent back to Mexico could severely hurt Mexico's economy.

Fox said Mexicans in the United States sent home $12 billion in 2003, making remittances the second-largest source of foreign income for Mexico, exceeded only by oil sales.

Proposal improves strained relations
The proposed immigration reform has dramatically improved relations between Mexico and the United States. 
Early in his presidency, Bush championed his close relationship with Fox. In fact, Bush chose Mexico as the destination for his first foreign trip abroad. But in the past two years, the relationship has faltered.

Fox has accused Bush of "forgetting about" Mexico after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The rift deepened when Fox opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

But Bush administration officials have insisted the past is the past and this is now the time to mend relations.

Fox has said he plans to visit the United States several times this year, and Bush has left open the possibility of inviting the Mexican president to his ranch in Crawford, Texas.