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Mexican president's legacy at stake as U.S. resists migration

MEXICO CITY—When President Vicente Fox came into office in late 2000, he hoped his legacy would be U.S. immigration revisions that would allow Mexicans to cross the border into the United States and work legally.

Now, that vision is crumbling in the face of legislation President Bush signed earlier this month that authorizes the construction of more walls along the border and in effect invalidates Mexico-issued ID cards for Mexicans living in the United States.

Fox is pledging to continue his efforts for migrants until his term ends in December 2006. But officials are angry and disheartened at what they see as walls going up between the United States and Mexico instead of coming down.

Fox's government has presented a diplomatic note protesting the law—the first the country has ever formally presented to the United States.

Fox expressed his anger in a recent speech: "I respect the sovereignty of the United States and its freedom to take such decisions and measures, but frankly it's not the right approach between friends and neighbors."

Much of the news coverage of his comments focused on the racial overtones of his defense of Mexican migrants' role in the U.S. economy—he said Mexicans "are doing jobs that not even blacks want to do." The Mexican government eventually apologized for offending African-Americans and Fox met with the Rev. Jesse Jackson to clarify the remark.

But the comments underlined Fox's frustration and anxiety at the passage of the so-called Real ID Act, which was attached to an $82 billion spending bill to pay for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The legislation requires that ID cards meet strict federal requirements in three years if they'll be used to request U.S. government services or board an airliner. It also allows the Homeland Security Department to construct a second wall and other barriers around the 150-foot metal wall that's along the border between Tijuana and San Diego.

It wasn't supposed to turn out this way. A rancher and former governor of Guanajuato state, Fox made immigration a top priority. During his campaigns, he promised to fight for an open border and for legalizing Mexicans in the United States. He expected Bush, also a former governor with a ranch, to be an ally.

Fox and Bush began a close relationship after they took office, Fox in December 2000 and Bush a month later. They vowed to enrich ties and work on legalizing or giving amnesty to at least 4 million Mexicans and other undocumented workers in the United States.

But a chill followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Bush didn't push an immigration accord. Fox didn't support the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Last year, there was renewed optimism when Bush proposed a program to allow temporary workers, similar to guest programs of the past. But it has lingered in Congress.

Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., introduced a bill this month that would allow immigrants to seek legal status after living in the United States three years, but its passage is considered an uphill battle.

Immigration is the one political constant in Mexico, ahead of next year's July presidential elections. Even Fox's worst political enemies agree with his criticism of the United States. Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the left-of-center Democratic Revolutionary Party, the favorite to succeed Fox, said the United States should help Mexico create jobs, not build walls.

Others agree, calling for a "united, nonpartisan protest."

"This is an anti-immigration campaign without precedent. It's Mexico against Republicans, (California Gov. Arnold) Schwarzenegger, the Minutemen in Arizona, Bush's entire Cabinet," said Primitivo Rodriguez, a Mexican political scientist who specializes in immigration and is working to pass a bill here that would allow Mexicans abroad to vote in the 2006 presidential elections.

The anger over the U.S. legislation is such that diplomatic protests are only one of the plans. Mexican community leaders have advocated going on strike to prove that U.S. employers couldn't survive without cheap Mexican labor.

"These measures are myopic, racist and xenophobic," said Amalia Garcia, the left-of-center governor of Zacatecas state, which has one of the country's highest emigration rates. "Building walls and preventing migrants from getting a driver's license don't solve any security problems."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MEXICO-MIGRANTS

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