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Bush to Face Skeptics at Americas Summit Despite Immigration Reform Plan - 2004-01-09

President Bush will fly to the northern Mexico city of Monterrey in a few days to participate in the Summit of the Americas (January 12-13) with more than 30 other leaders of Western Hemisphere nations. Mr. Bush's announcement of immigration reform proposals this week has boosted relations between the United States and Mexico. But, the president may face more difficult problems in Monterrey.

President Bush is likely to find a receptive, but somewhat skeptical, group of regional leaders in Monterrey. There has been a marked move to the left in Latin America in recent years, and Washington's agenda promoting free trade and economic liberalization is not always welcomed.

Brazil has clashed with the Bush administration over the issue of free trade, and recently began fingerprinting U.S. citizens arriving in Brazil, in retaliation for the U.S. policy of fingerprinting visitors from almost all foreign nations arriving in the United States. Argentina's president, Nestor Kirchner, a few days ago said that he was expecting to "win by a knockout" when he meets with President Bush in Monterrey, as if the two were scheduled for a boxing match.

Monterrey may also provide a grandstand for Venezuela's contentious leader, Hugo Chavez, who has rejected globalization and economic liberalization policies promoted by Washington. The United States has expressed concern about the friendship that has developed between Mr. Chavez and Cuba's communist leader, Fidel Castro.

The warmest reception President Bush is likely to receive in Monterrey will come from the host, Mexican President Vicente Fox, who is expressing joy over the Bush proposal to legalize undocumented immigrant workers.

He said the measures Mr. Bush proposes are the result of his government's persistent efforts to push the immigration issue in Washington. Mr. Fox has long advocated legalization of the estimated four million Mexican workers who entered the United States illegally, seeking jobs. If the U.S. Congress converts the Bush proposal into law, it will be seen in Mexico as a major political victory for Mr. Fox.

The effort to forge an immigration agreement seemed close to success just before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Security concerns then became dominant, and many Mexicans worried that the special friendship between their president and Mr. Bush had suffered. This became even more worrisome when Mexico clashed with the United States over the war in Iraq. But Dagobert Brito, professor of political economy at Rice University's Baker Institute, says any Mexican leader at this time would have to see immigration as a crucial issue.

"If it were Salinas, or Zedillo, it would be the same thing," he said. "I think the things driving this are the real issues, and if it had not been for September 11, these things would not have been put on the back burner."

Professor Brito says the Bush administration sees more than political advantages in pushing for immigration reform. He says Mr. Bush recognizes that the current policy is not working. At the same time, Mexico sees tangible benefits from increased immigration. At $12 billion a year, remittances from immigrants in the United States constitute Mexico's second largest source of foreign funds next to oil.

Mexico has also benefited from its participation, along with the United States and Canada, in the North American Free Trade Agreement, even though there are sectors of the Mexican population who blame the agreement, known as NAFTA, for their woes. Poor farmers and small manufacturers have been among the losers in Mexico as a result of free trade. Professor Brito says, however, that other regional nations are seeking similar arrangements with the United States because of the overall benefits that come from free trade.

"These people see what happened, and they still want to join. So, it must be that they would prefer to be in NAFTA, or something like NAFTA, than not," he said. "So, for the majority of these countries, they view it as a benefit, or they would not be trying to join."

NAFTA served as the model for the recent free trade agreement between the United States and Central American nations, provided some precedent for a free trade pact with Chile and has served to some extent as a platform to launch the so-called Free Trade Area of the Americas. But NAFTA has helped Mexico draw foreign investment and factory jobs, largely because of its geographic position bordering the United States. Some other regional nations are skeptical about what free trade can do for them, especially if it comes at what they consider too high a price. Some nations have balked at U.S. demands that they privatize state-owned industries and create laws that would protect foreign investors at the expense of local interests.