Pubdate: Wed, 14 Mar 2007
Source: Napa Valley Register (CA)
Copyright: 2007 Lee Enterprises
Author: Tom Raum, Associated Press


MERIDA, Mexico -- President Bush sought to soothe strained ties with 
Mexico on Tuesday by promising to prod Congress to overhaul tough 
U.S. immigration policies. But Mexican President Felipe Calderon 
criticized U.S. plans for a 700-mile border fence and said Bush must 
do more to curb American drug appetites.

Mexico was the last stop on Bush's five-nation Latin American tour, 
and the one where the political stakes seemed the highest.

Bush walked a high wire: He wants to improve frayed ties over 
immigration and drug trafficking and the Iraq war, but without 
alienating supporters back home, particularly Republican lawmakers 
advocating stiff penalties against undocumented workers.

The president also was distracted by problems at home. Attorney 
General Alberto Gonzales acknowledged mistakes were made in the 
firing of eight federal prosecutors, and that the White House was 
involved in discussions of who would be dismissed and when.

This was Bush's first meeting with Calderon since the 
Harvard-educated Mexican conservative took office Dec. 1 after a 
razor-thin victory.

They clashed, though gently.

Welcoming Bush to a restored hacienda on the sun-drenched Yucatan 
Peninsula, Calderon said it would be hard to reduce Mexico's drug 
production while demand remains high in the United States.

"We need the collaboration and the active participation of our 
neighbor," Calderon said.

Bush and Calderon -- both pro-business conservatives -- acknowledged 
their differences and vowed to work together.

Calderon said it was time for a fresh start to "direct our 
relationship toward a path of mutual prosperity."

"Geography has made our countries neighbors, but the choice we've 
made for each other is a choice for freedom," said Bush. "And that 
choice has made us friends."

Happy talk aside, relations between the two neighbors have worsened 
since Bush last year signed a law calling for construction of fencing 
along the long border the two countries share. Calderon has ridiculed 
the fence -- a mix of physical and high-tech barriers -- and likens 
it to the Berlin Wall.

Calderon argued that the fence would do little to stem illegal 
migration. But he also praised Bush for pushing for immigration 
reforms, and acknowledged that improving economic conditions and 
generating more jobs in Mexico "is the only way in order to truly 
solve the migratory issue."

It is questionable whether the full 700-mile fence will be built. A 
bill authorizing the fence did not come with any new funding, and the 
$1.2 billion that Congress previously approved is not enough. A 
14-mile stretch under construction in the San Diego area is estimated 
to cost $126.5 million.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has noted that border 
officials say it may be unnecessary to build all 700 miles of the fence.

Bush has been having a hard time lining up support from his own 
Republican Party for his proposals to establish a guest worker 
program and a path to citizenship for some of the 12 million 
undocumented workers already in the United States. He has said he 
hopes for movement, at least in the Senate, by August, but he faces 
daunting obstacles.

"In the debate on migration, I remind my fellow citizens that family 
values do not stop at the Rio Grande River, that there are decent, 
hardworking honorable citizens of Mexico who want to make a living 
for their families," Bush said as he stood beside Calderon. "And so, 
Mr. President, my pledge to you and your government -- but, more 
importantly, the people of Mexico -- is I will work as hard as I 
possibly can to pass comprehensive immigration reform."

Calderon's complaints about the fence marked the second day in a row 
that Bush drew a rebuke from a host. In Guatemala on Monday, 
President Oscar Berger complained about roundups in the United States 
of undocumented Guatemalans.

Presidential counselor Dan Bartlett said such reactions are to be 
expected. In Mexico and in Guatemala, as in the United States, 
migration "is a very emotional debate," Bartlett said. He said Bush 
wasn't taken off guard by the criticisms. Those leaders "are very 
concerned about their fellow citizens that are living in the United 
States at this time," Bartlett said.

The president and his wife, Laura, toured the nearby Uxmal Ruins, the 
remains of an ancient sprawling Mayan city.

Security was extremely tight in Merida. Schools were closed. The area 
around the hotels where Bush and Calderon are staying was guarded by 
police and surrounded by metal barriers.
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman