ABOARD THE PRESIDENTE JUAREZ—Flying high above the Yucatan peninsula, Mexican President Vicente Fox leaned forward and pointed a finger to make this point: In a few years, he said, the United States may be begging Mexico for the very workers it's now trying to keep out by building a wall along the border.
With the looming retirement from the work force of the U.S. baby boom generation, and with Mexico's population growth-rate declining, immigration from Mexico will slow just as demand for workers in the United States will be growing, he told Knight Ridder in an interview aboard his presidential jet.
"I am absolutely convinced that by 2010, the United States will have a great demand for workers and laborers to sustain its economy and to sustain its population of retirees and pensioners," the president said. "And in that very year, Mexico will need its young people to help its own economy and to attend to its own retirees."
When Fox took office in 2000, he vowed to make an immigration accord with the United States a top priority, and he thought he had a likely partner in President Bush, who took office less than two months later. But the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks derailed Bush's plans for an immigration accord as the United States adopted a tough, national-security view of all border issues.
Now, in the final months of his six-year term—Mexico limits presidents to one term—Fox shows no disappointment as he suggests that the two sides eventually will come to terms with the realities of migration, even if no accord is reached before he leaves office Dec. 1 or before the next U.S. presidential elections in 2008.
"Yes, we have sought an immigration accord for 80 years. It hasn't been reached in 80 years. However, today, we are closer than ever," Fox said.
Demographic experts said Fox was at least partly right. The rate of Mexico's population growth has slowed, from 1.4 percent annually in 2000 to 0.99 percent today. That means that fewer Mexicans will be joining the work force in the future, making it easier for them to find work in their own country. Fewer will feel pushed to the United States.
"What Fox is saying is that the supply push will go down, for demographic reasons, and that's correct," said Philip Martin, an agricultural economist and expert on immigrant labor at the University of California-Davis. "Instead of a million people turning 15 every year, it will drop to somewhere between 600,000 and 650,000 by 2015."
But the pull of jobs in the United States still might draw Mexicans across the border, especially as the wave of some 76 million baby boomers—those born from 1946 to 1964—begins reaching retirement age in 2011.
"Just because there are fewer people coming into the work force, you can still have lots of people who want to leave and go abroad," said Martin, co-author of "The New Rural Poverty" (Urban Institute Press, 2006), which examines how poor immigrant workers are changing the landscape of rural America.
Fox secured his place in Mexican history by defeating the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which had ruled Mexico without interruption for 71 years.
But Fox's National Action Party never enjoyed a majority in Congress, and the Institutional Revolutionary Party managed to block many of its initiatives. Fox never quite figured out a way around that obstacle, and many Mexicans think he should have achieved more.
That theme came across in a lengthy conversation with Knight Ridder on Monday as Fox traveled by plane and helicopter across the Yucatan peninsula, part of a nationwide five-day blitz to inaugurate 46 highway and public works projects in 15 Mexican states.
Mexicans didn't err in electing him, Fox said. He cited stability as a vastly underappreciated accomplishment of his tenure after seven decades of one-party rule.
"Mexico has 10 full years of political, economic and social stability," he said. He pointed to a stronger, freer press and a judiciary largely free from political meddling.
On his list of accomplishments: Mexico's credit rating has improved, its reserves of foreign currency now exceed its foreign debt, and it has a balanced budget that Washington would envy.
Fox is particularly proud that Mexico's inflation rate is now below that of the United States—3.3 percent, versus 3.4 percent for the U.S. in 2005. Interest rates in Mexico fell more than 52 percent in the first four years of his term.
At every helicopter stop Fox made across the Yucatan peninsula, he reminded people that "inflation hurts the poor the most."
It's a message aimed at blunting the candidacy of the man who polls show is his most likely successor, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a former mayor of Mexico City. Lopez Obrador, the standard bearer for the Party of the Democratic Revolution, campaigns on the slogan "First, the Poor," implying that Fox has left them behind.
Fox thinks the charge is unfair and nakedly political, though he avoids mentioning Lopez Obrador by name because sitting presidents are prohibited from campaigning.
"Populism and demagoguery are strategies and weapons of some politicians," he said. "Responsibility and good economic management are the weapons of other politicians, which is our case."
With nine months left in his presidency, Fox remains a popular figure. His approval rating is a solid 70 percent in recent polls. Still, he's not without controversy.
Critics say his cross-country trips are barely disguised campaigning for his party's presidential candidate, Felipe Calderon, a former energy secretary who's trailing Lopez Obrador by 4 to 10 points in the polls as July 2 elections near.
Mexican courts earlier had ordered Fox to end television ads touting his administration's accomplishments, saying they amounted to campaigning on behalf of Calderon.
The president still is taking heat from his in-office marriage to his press aide, Marta Sahagun. Gone is concern that Sahagun wanted to succeed Fox, a move that many Mexicans thought smacked of imperial designs. But that's been replaced by allegations that her children used family connections to win construction contracts.
Fox denies those accusations, but they clearly chafe. Monday, he angrily told a television reporter that legislators who are investigating the charges either should show proof or "shut their mouths."
But mostly Fox lists accomplishments—from education to better medical insurance for the poor—and urges the continuation of his policies.
"Mexico is on the right road. Mexico is reducing poverty, better distributing income," he said. "But what we need is permanence for public policies so we can reach our goals as fast as possible."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Vicente Fox
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MEXICO-FOX
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