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Bush meets Mexico's Fox with immigration in balance

Written by: Staff
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MEXICO CITY, Mar 29 (Reuters) U S President George W Bush meets President Vicente Fox in Mexico this week with doubts hanging over U S immigration reforms both men need to lift their flagging reputations.

A U S Senate panel approved a bill on Monday that would create a guest worker program sought by Bush, setting up a battle with Republicans in the House of Representatives who want tough security measures to dominate immigration reform.

With his job approval rating at the lowest of his presidency, immigration is a new test of Bush's political strength after he lost a fight with fellow Republicans over plans to have an Arab company run terminals at U S ports.

Although the immigration debate still has a long way to run, any bill seen as favorable to the millions of Mexicans in the United States would give Fox a much-awaited boost.

Seen in Mexico as a lame-duck president, Fox, who has failed for five years to convince Washington to allow more Mexicans to work in the United States legally, welcomed the guest worker bill's approval as an important first step.

''I am very happy that we are advancing, I am optimistic,'' he told reporters on Monday night. ''This is a good sign and we must all carry on working.'' Planning to retire to his ranch in central Mexico in December, Fox has one eye on his legacy and would love to sign off with a victory on immigration.

''It'll mean a lot for him personally,'' said Andres Rozental, a former adviser to the Fox government on foreign policy.

''Politically, it is probably something he still won't be able to capitalize on, maybe in the history books,'' he said.

Fox and Bush will meet tomorrow and Friday in the Caribbean resort of Cancun to discuss the immigration bill, which has sparked big protests by immigrants in U.S. cities.

AMERICAN IDENTITY Bush reminded Americans on Monday that immigration had forged their country.

''No one should pretend that immigrants are a threat to American identity, because immigrants have shaped America's identity,'' he said.

The U S public is divided between those who favor curbing illegal immigration with tighter border security and tougher enforcement and those who say it is essential to bring some of the estimated 12 million illegal workers out of the shadows with a comprehensive overhaul.

Immigrant groups, labor unions and some business groups are pushing for broad reform, including a guest worker program.

But some conservative Republicans, who normally back Bush, say that would be a form of amnesty and would reward people for illegal behavior.

Tough new proposals from some members of Congress include making it a felony to be in the United States illegally, cracking down on employers and others who help illegal immigrants and plans to build a fence along part of the border with Mexico.

Many in Mexico underestimate the concern in the United States about border security after the September. 11 attacks, said Gordon Hanson of the University of California, San Diego.

''The U S does not understand the sensitivities that Mexico has about the immigration issue and Mexico does not understand the paranoia that the United States has about the immigration issue,'' he said.

Most people in Mexico have a friend or relative in the United States, either legally or illegally, and their welfare is a top concern for Mexican governments.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will also join the Cancun summit, where Bush hopes to solve a long-simmering dispute with Canada over softwood lumber.

''I'd like to get the issue solved,'' Bush told a round-table interview with Canadian and Mexican journalists. The interview took place on Monday but a transcript was only released for publication yesterday.

Canada ships billion in softwood lumber such as spruce, fir and pine to the United States each year. Washington has slapped duties on the imports, saying Ottawa's below-market logging rates represent an unfair subsidy. Canada denies the claims and accuses the United States of being protectionist.

REUTERS PDS RN0444

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