Fox Challenges Bush on Immigration

W A S H I N G T O N, Sept. 6, 2001 -- Mexico's President Vicente Fox opened his state visit with fireworks Wednesday, challenging his host, President Bush, to strike a deal on illegal immigrants before the year is out.

During a welcoming ceremony at the White House, Fox, speaking through an interpreter, said the two countries must reach a bilateral agreement by year's end on a broad guest worker program that would allow many Mexicans who are in the United States illegally to stay on legally.

"We must and we can reach an agreement on migration before the end of this very year which will allow us before the end of our respective terms to make sure that there are no Mexicans who have not entered this country legally in the United States," Fox said. "And that those Mexicans who have come into the country, do so with a proper documents."

Fox's announcement puts some heat on Bush, who has faced fierce pressures from within his own party against amnesty for undocumented workers in the United States, and pressures from Democrats and Hispanic groups in favor of a color-blind amnesty policy covering all Latinos, not just Mexicans.

At a state dinner Wednesday evening, Fox said he believed his nation and the United States could come up with a solution together.

"We are going to come up with answers," he said, referring not just to immigration but international crime. "I am sure now that we will develop and grow together."

Taking Observers by Surprise

But Fox's statement earlier in the day stunned observers.

In interviews in advance of the visit, Fox had conceded sweeping immigration reform would take years, probably beyond a first Bush term in office. And Bush had signaled that he is not ready to push immigration reform plans.

"Immigration is a very complex subject," Bush told reporters on the eve of the visit. Fox has advocated special treatment for Mexicans but Bush said, "I have explained to him there is no appetite for blanket amnesty in Congress."

Granting legal status to illegals faces significant challenges in Congress, where critics contend breaking U.S. laws should not be rewarded — particularly as people from other nations make their way through the lengthy legal immigration process.

Bush was forced to back away from earlier statements on immigration reform. He suggested in July the administration was considering granting permanent legal status to up to 3 million undocumented Mexican immigrants. Now he says he favors a more modest guest worker program, that would allow illegal immigrants to work here legally.

Fox has had his own problems getting reforms passed by Mexico's legislature in a rocky year in which his upset election brought a new political party into power for the first time in seven decades. But his soaring popularity has begun to slip as promised economic reforms go unfulfilled.

North of the border, Bush has yet to mount a significant effort in Congress to change immigration laws. And he lost the early rounds in a trade issue that would prevent Mexican trucks from having easy access to U.S. roads.

Bush’s First State Guest

Fox and Bush have met five times since Bush took office. But after months of Texas-sized bragging about their vibrant relationship, Bush welcomed Fox as the first diplomatic state guest for the new administration.

Traditional ceremonies for the South Lawn arrival included a review of U.S. troops and welcoming speeches.

The high-profile visit promises to stretch the normal boundaries of official protocol. Bush has no better friend in the international community than Fox, and the influence of Hispanics in American political and cultural life has been growing.

Fox and his wife Martha (until July she was his press secretary) will spend two very full days in the company of America's first couple.

Bilateral Issues Discussed

Bush and Fox were briefed on Cabinet-level discussions on a range of issues related to the U.S.-Mexico relationship, including agriculture, border control and migration.

In one of the more unusual elements of this state visit, the Mexican Cabinet has been invited here to meet with the U.S. Cabinet. At the federal level, U.S.-Mexico relations are coordinated by the Binational Commission. The commission is a unique forum that allows for regular exchanges at the Cabinet level on a wide range of issues.

Without specifying, Fox said progress was being made by the commission as a result of its work over the past six months.

"There [have been] clear advances on each of the subjects, but more so there is a clear advance on this philosophy of trust that we are building in," Fox told reporters.

Bush called the morning meetings "extraordinary."

Today, Fox will make what looks like a typical American campaign swing through Ohio with Bush, while the Mexican first lady gets an arts tour of Chicago with Laura Bush. That evening, the Bushes will be guests at a reciprocal dinner hosted by the Mexican president.

The next official visit at leader-level will be Russia's Vladimir Putin in November. — ABCNEWS' Ann Compton and's David Ruppe contributed to this report.