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Bush, Fox talk immigration reform on the first day of summit

CANCUN, Mexico—President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox said Thursday that immigration reform is out of their hands while the Senate debates a comprehensive proposal that includes a guest worker program.

Bush and Fox had hoped that the two-day summit here with new Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper would yield some progress in revamping immigration policy and creating a guest worker provision, which both leaders want.

But by the end of the summit's first day, both men said that immigration reform was a work in progress, with the work being done on Capitol Hill. Fox tried to lower expectations of Thursday's meeting even before he sat down for his one-on-one session with Bush.

"It's not here, in these meetings, where a migration agreement is made," Fox said after a morning sightseeing tour of Mayan ruins in Chichen Itza with Bush and Harper. "It is an issue for the Congress of the United States. And there they will make the decision. It is no longer between President Bush and President Fox."

Some Mexican officials had expressed optimism about a potential breakthrough on immigration prior to the summit.

The Mexican government had launched a public relations offensive, taking out full-page ads last week in the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. The ads outlined its support for a guest worker program, urged the United States to address the status of the millions of illegal immigrants in the country and declared border security a shared responsibility between the two nations.

After his session with Bush on Thursday, Fox told reporters that Congress "might approve any sort of bill . . . migration-wise."

Bush said he told Fox that immigration reform was moving through Congress, and he expressed optimism that the process will yield the changes that both leaders want.

"I told the president that I am committed to having a comprehensive bill on my desk," Bush said. "And by comprehensive I mean not only border security . . . but a bill that has a worker permit program in it."

The Senate is in the midst of a two-week debate on immigration policy as congressional midterm elections and the 2008 presidential campaign loom, and as immigration rises as a hot-button issue among voters.

The Senate Judiciary Committee completed work this week on a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would allow illegal immigrants in the United States as of Jan. 7, 2004, to obtain visas and stay in the country for six years while applying for permanent residency. They would have to pay fines and back taxes and show proficiency in English and civics.

The bill's guest worker provision would enable up to 400,000 foreign workers a year to enter the United States for up to six years to take low-skilled jobs that U.S. workers pass over.

The Senate is expected to vote next week on whether the committee bill should replace an enforcement-only measure by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.,—a likely 2008 presidential candidate—as the primary Senate bill.

If the committee bill passes, the Senate could be on a collision course with the House of Representatives, which passed a bill last December that calls for building a 700-mile fence along the Southwest border and contains no guest worker provision. Lawmakers who oppose the guest worker plan say that giving illegal immigrants a chance to work and live in the United States legally would reward bad behavior.

Bush said he believes that the House and Senate can resolve their differences.

"I told the president (Fox) that there is a legislative process that's going forward, and that it may look cumbersome to some, but that's how our democracy works," Bush said.

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

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