Mexican President Vicente Fox wants an immigration deal with the United States by the end of the year. U.S. officials say they are making progress on a plan for Mexican migrants, but overcoming opposition in Congress may take longer than the next four months. President Bush welcomed the Mexican leader to Washington for his administration's first official state visit.
White House officials knew immigration would be the centerpiece of this visit. But the Mexican leader's timetable appears to have taken them a bit by surprise.
President Fox told Mr. Bush, "We must and we can reach an agreement on migration before the end of this year," so that by the end of their terms in office there will be no more undocumented Mexican workers in the United States.
White House National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice says both leaders are committed to that goal whether it happens this year or not. "We were aware that President Fox had this objective and, indeed, we think that it would be terrific if we were able by the end of the year to achieve agreement," he said. "The two presidents have said that they believe that over their own respective terms that they can make substantial progress in this important area. They already have made some progress in this area. And we are going to work as hard and as fast as we possibly can to achieve the goal."
President Bush opposes a general amnesty for the more than three million undocumented Mexican workers in the United States. But he clearly wants to come to some sort of agreement with President Fox that would protect the rights of those workers without appearing to reward illegal immigration.
U.S. and Mexican officials have spent the last six months discussing the issue. There were earlier expectations that this visit to Washington might include a breakthrough on amnesty for some of those workers, but it now appears there will simply be a restatment of the leaders' commitment to keep working on it.
Some members of Congress from both political parties oppose the move saying it would reward people for entering the country illegally and would be unfair to those waiting for proper visas. Supporters say an amnesty would protect the labor rights of currently undocumented Mexican workers who are not guaranteed a minimum wage.
Ms. Rice says it is a complex issue with ramifications for both governments. She would not stake the Bush Administration to President Fox's timetable but said the fact that they are even talking about immigration is a breakthrough. "The very thought that you have the Mexican President and the President of the United States sitting down to systematically talk about migration and how to deal with this issue is a breakthrough in and of itself," he said. "This is an issue that has not been comfortable in the bilateral relationship. You have here two men who are comfortable talking about this issue, who recognize its importance, and who are committed to doing something good during their terms. That in itself is a breakthrough."
President Fox has the opportunity to make his case in person to reluctant lawmakers Thursday when he speaks to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress.