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Immigration to take center stage at trilateral summit

WASHINGTON—President Bush will meet with Mexican President Vicente Fox in Cancun on Thursday to discuss immigration reform, even as the Senate debates whether to give legal status to the millions of illegal immigrants who are already in the United States.

Bush and Fox are scheduled to meet in the Yucatan vacation resort as part of a trilateral summit with new Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. While Bush has serious economic issues to address with Harper, U.S.-Mexican immigration is expected to dominate the two-day meeting.

"The immigration debate is a vital debate for our country," Bush said Thursday, after a White House meeting on the issue with agricultural and faith-based leaders. "It must be done in a way that doesn't pit one group of people against another."

Given the political climate across the United States, it's doubtful that Bush will get his wish for a nondivisive debate. Many in Washington question whether any immigration legislation can pass this year. Bush is weakened by low approval ratings, and opposition to illegal immigration has become a red-hot issue in many states where lawmakers face voters in November. Moreover, several potential 2008 presidential candidates are weighing in from opposing sides, lessening the chance for compromise.

"There's nothing that Bush can promise credibly to the Mexicans," said George Grayson, a professor who specializes in U.S.-Mexico relations at Virginia's College of William and Mary. "He's had a rough couple of months, and the Republicans sought to separate themselves from him in the Dubai Ports deal. They have a chance to do it again with immigration."

That isn't stopping Bush from promoting his plan to overhaul immigration law. He highlights his call for a guest-worker program, which would allow illegal immigrants and foreign workers to apply for temporary legal status to accept U.S. jobs. After a maximum of six years, they would be required to go back to their home countries and wouldn't be placed on track for permanent residency.

Bowing to rising resentment of illegal immigrants across the heartland, Bush also has recently emphasized tighter security along the U.S.-Mexican border and called for illegal immigrants registering for his guest-worker program to pay unspecified fines.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a potential 2008 presidential candidate, is staking out a harder stance. The Senate will begin two weeks of debate on immigration on Tuesday, and Frist is sponsoring a bill that would toughen border security without offering a guest-worker program.

His proposal mirrors an enforcement-only bill that the House of Representatives passed on Dec. 16. Lawmakers opposing the guest-worker plan say that giving illegal immigrants the opportunity to work and live here legally would reward bad behavior.

Meanwhile, on Monday the Senate Judiciary Committee will take up a bill by Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass, and John McCain, R-Ariz., another likely 2008 presidential candidate, that would let illegal immigrants hold temporary work visas for up to six years after they pay $1,000 fines and pass background checks. Illegal immigrants could apply for permanent residence and eventual citizenship under the Kennedy-McCain measure.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the panel's chairman, is trying to broker a compromise that includes guest-worker and enforcement provisions.

Most experts think Bush faces an uphill fight to win congressional approval of any terms granting legal status to illegal aliens, which opponents denounce as amnesty for lawbreakers.

"I think it's going to be difficult for the president," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which opposes giving legal status to illegal aliens. "Whatever political capital he thought he had last year is spent and, like the rest of the federal government, is in deficit. Amnesty, on a visceral level, most Americans object to."

Polls reflect America's unease with some of the proposed changes. In a Quinnipiac national survey last month, 62 percent said they oppose making it easier for illegal immigrants to become citizens, while only 32 percent supported the idea. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll two weeks ago found that 56 percent said the United States shouldn't grant temporary worker status to illegal immigrants.

Mexican officials are under a growing sense of urgency after watching the issue heat up among their northern neighbors. Fox is in his last year in office and would like immigration reform to be part of his legacy, Grayson said.

"Fox leaves office and has precious little to show," Grayson said. "He's hoping to pull a rabbit out of his hat."

Seeking to influence U.S. lawmakers and public opinion, the Fox government paid $369,500 for full-page ads that advocate a guest-worker program and argue that Mexico should help the United States design it. The ads ran this week in The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times.

"Perhaps we are at the most important moment in this debate in the last five, six years," said Geronimo Gutierrez, undersecretary for North America in Mexico's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "... Anything can happen with migration reform in the U.S., and we are aware of that. ... We want to send a message that Mexico is part of the solution, not part of the problem."

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The NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll was taken March 10-13. The poll was a sampling of 1,005 adults—48 percent male, 52 percent females. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. The Quinnipiac University Poll was conducted Feb. 21-28 with 1,892 registered voters nationwide. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060320 IMMIGRATION

ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050715 MEXICO BORDER

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