President Bush is pledging to reform the nation's immigration system, but he is finding it will not be easy, and it will take time. He had hoped to have a framework for reform ready by September 5, when he welcomes Mexican President Vicente Fox to the White House, but both leaders are bowing to political reality and choosing a go slow approach.
Drug control and trade have been the top issues for years in talks between the United States and Mexico, but in recent months, immigration has moved to the top of the agenda.
The change came with shifts in power in both Washington and Mexico City. Texas Governor George W. Bush moved into the White House, bringing with him a border-state sensitivity to ties across the Rio Grande. "I cannot think of anything more important for our foreign policy and our hemisphere than good relations with Mexico," said the president.
At about the same time, Vicente Fox was putting policies in place as Mexico's new leader - building on a campaign platform that included immigration reform.
"Mr. Fox actually made it part of his presidential campaign," said Rod Camp, an expert on U.S./Mexican affairs at Claremont McKenna College near Los Angeles. "And because of his past relationship with President Bush as Governor of Texas, I think he suspected he might find a more sympathetic ear from Bush. And therefore, as a way of fulfilling one of his campaign promises, he really decided to raise it as a fundamental issue in terms of the bilateral relationship between Mexico and the United States."
In February, the two new Presidents set up a high-level task force to come up with recommendations for immigration reform. In July, came word the panel might be considering an amnesty for millions of Mexicans living illegally in the United States.
Cecilia Munoz, an official with the National Council of La Raza, an Hispanic advocacy group says, "The level of excitement at this opportunity is extraordinary. It is a major topic of discussion at the community level. It is something people are very, very excited about."
But in recent weeks, President Bush has emphasized he does not want a blanket amnesty, and is leaning more towards an orderly process that would enable some Mexicans living in the U.S. illegally to get work permits and seek permanent status. "There are ways to make sure that people are rewarded for hard work without affecting those who have been patiently waiting in line for legal status," Mr. Bush said.
As he spoke those words, the political lines were being drawn. Democrats called for a full amnesty. At the same time, anti-immigration forces within the President's Republican Party vowed to fight an attempt to help illegal immigrants achieve anything even resembling legal status.
Negotiators for Mexico and the United States took note of the growing controversy. They decided to take a more cautious go-slow approach to drafting an immigration plan.
Experts in cross-border relations were not surprised. "Both sides have a realization," explains Rod Camp, "that the political conditions are not necessarily welcome to the rapid passage of what could potentially be a controversial policy."
Anti-Immigration groups were heartened by the slowdown. "The political reality is the American people do not want to reward lawbreakers with an affirmative benefit," says Dan Stein, Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Mr. Stein says President Bush is bowing to pressure from corporations that need unskilled labor. He also accuses Mr. Bush of pandering to Hispanic groups, while putting the Republican majority in the House of Representatives at risk. "Honestly, the Republicans took control of Congress for the first time in many of our lifetimes partly on the strength of immigration control positions," Mr. Stein said.
At this point, with so much political pressure at play, no one expects an immigration reform plan to emerge from the Bush-Fox summit. La Raza's Cecilia Munoz says pro-immigration groups will be looking for signals from the White House to see if the notion of some type of legalization process at least remains an option. "People are going to be watching to see if any doors slam shut during this State visit, particularly with respect to the question of getting people legal status," she said.
Supporters of reform say they would like to see a timetable for action emerge from the White House meeting. But the timetable that really counts may be the one on Capitol Hill.
Congress is scheduled to adjourn in October, leaving little time to deal with immigration this year. And there are indications the legislature may make incremental changes in the system, beginning with an overhaul of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.