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Mexican President Calderon on Goodwill Tour of Several U.S. Cities

February 15, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Mexican President Felipe Calderon went on a tour of several U.S. cities with large Mexican populations; however, his itinerary did not include Washington, D.C. Jeffrey Kaye reports on Calderon's trip.

JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, Mexico’s president goes north of the border. NewsHour correspondent Jeffrey Kaye of KCET-Los Angeles has our report.

JEFFREY KAYE, NewsHour Correspondent: It was a whirlwind trip to five U.S. cities in as many days. The president of Mexico, who returned home yesterday, met with leaders of business and government and with representatives of Mexican immigrant communities.

But even though this was Felipe Calderon’s first U.S. visit since taking office in December 2006, neither President Bush nor Washington, D.C., was on his itinerary.

That was in marked contrast to his predecessor’s first U.S. trip in 2001: President Bush greeted Vicente Fox with an elaborate White House ceremony, and both leaders spoke of the promise of immigration reform.

VICENTE FOX, Former President of Mexico (through translator): 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.

JEFFREY KAYE: It didn’t happen, not then and not since. Instead, immigration became a hot political issue in the U.S., as the Mexican population here grew to an estimated 12 million. About half that number are believed to be undocumented.

There was good reason for the Mexican president to skip Washington, according to UCLA Professor Raul Hinojosa. He consults with government officials on both sides of the border.

RAUL HINOJOSA, Professor, UCLA: I think that the president feels that it’s necessary for his administration to open up new channels of communication and not raise it to the level of a state visit, where there’s actual expectations that things are going to be resolved, because we’re clearly not in that mode.

Calderon reaches out to immigrants

JEFFREY KAYE: One theme Calderon stressed throughout his trip was that Mexico and the U.S. rely on each other. On Wednesday, he addressed a joint session of the California legislature.

FELIPE CALDERON, President of Mexico: Our nations will never find prosperity by closing their doors. Few of the world's economies are as complementary as those of Mexico and California.

While your economy is capital-intensive, Mexico's is labor-intensive. Investment, capital and labor complement each other.

To grow, Mexico needs investment from California and the rest of the union, and the United States needs the strength, talent and capacity of Mexican workers to continue prospering.

JEFFREY KAYE: Most of Calderon's meetings with officials in Los Angeles -- and earlier in New York, Boston, Chicago and Sacramento -- were behind closed doors. But a central purpose for the U.S. visit was to reach out to Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.

And, at invitation-only events, they sought assurances from him.

RAUL BETANCOURT, Migrant Activist: We want to hear that we have 100 percent support from him, because we are helping a lot, all the immigrants over here living in the United States. We are sending a lot of money to our country.

JEFFREY KAYE: Calderon told his audiences that not only were migrants missed, but that his administration is trying to improve conditions for those they'd left behind.

FELIPE CALDERON (through translator): I want to tell you that we are working hard so that, instead of having to come to the United States, we create in Mexico conditions of opportunity, conditions of work, conditions of a dignified life, so that never, never do people out of necessity have to leave and look for work in the United States.

JEFFREY KAYE: Calderon also said he'll make sure that services provided migrants by Mexican consulates improve. Activists have complained they're inadequate.

It's a sensitive issue for Mexicans, since the attitudes of Mexican governments towards expatriates have fluctuated over the last century. Although migrants were sometimes held in disdain, Mexico now actively tries to promote and protect their interests.

More Mexican consulates appearing

JEFFREY KAYE: The world's largest Mexican consulate is in Los Angeles. Each morning, hundreds line up to take advantage of an array of social and financial services.

Vanessa Calva is consul for community affairs.

VANESSA CALVA, Mexican Consular Official: If you're a Mexican citizen, your government will be there to assist you in all these different manners. Particularly in a city where the community is so large, I think we face an interesting challenge, and that's why we've been able to develop and create different programs that go beyond what we usually serve as a consulate.

JEFFREY KAYE: As the migrant population has spread, Mexico has opened up new consulates. There are 47 throughout the U.S.

And while most countries use their consulates mainly to issue visas and passports and to promote culture and trade, Mexican consulates often act as both service centers and advocates for migrants.

Eleven percent of Mexico's population now lives in the United States. About half of them are here without permission, and the consulates make no distinction between authorized and unauthorized immigrants.

The consulates provide free legal assistance and give financial aid to destitute Mexican nationals. Consulates also team with various American government agencies and non-profit groups.

A mobile clinic run by Planned Parenthood visits the consulate monthly. Melanie Hedgemon, a physician's assistant, coordinates the Clinic Without Walls program.

MELANIE HEDGEMON, Planned Parenthood: We offer gonorrhea and chlamydia screening, screening for HIV, rapid tests where we give results in 10 minutes. We also have the whole array of birth control we offer.

JEFFREY KAYE: All for free?

MELANIE HEDGEMON: Well, we have state-funded programs that pay for it. We accept Medi-Cal. But or depending on your income, yes, it will be for free for you.

JEFFREY KAYE: And regardless of citizenship or immigration status?

MELANIE HEDGEMON: Not important. Not important. It has nothing to do with it.

JEFFREY KAYE: Outside the consulate and throughout much of the United States, the Mexican government sponsors more than 200 plazas comunitarias, learning centers. Adults can complete their education and earn elementary, junior and high school diplomas issued by the Mexican Ministry of Education.

The Mexican government has also teamed with U.S. government agencies to set up and promote a toll-free hotline where volunteers field complaints -- mostly from Mexican nationals -- about labor issues.

As a result of the calls, in four years, the U.S. Department of Labor has recovered nearly $4.5 million in back wages. The Labor Department's Priscilla Garcia says immigration status is a non-issue.

PRISCILLA GARCIA, U.S. Department of Labor: The law does not distinguish if the employee is here legally or not legally. Our laws are enforced to protect the employees that work in the United States.

JEFFREY KAYE: Regardless of immigration status?

PRISCILLA GARCIA: That's correct.

Calderon aims to balance concerns

JEFFREY KAYE: When it comes to advocacy, one policy promoted by the Mexican government stands out above others. Its consulates have handed out millions of identification cards, I.D. which Mexican officials successfully lobbied to be accepted as official documents by many states, cities and banks.  A former Mexican foreign minister described the push as "creeping legalization."

For his part, during his trip, President Calderon stopped short of calling for legalization or amnesty for illegal migrants. He offered no specific policy proposal but said he wants American lawmakers to let more Mexicans live and work legally in the U.S.

FELIPE CALDERON: Ensuring a better future for California and Mexico requires making immigration an orderly, humane and safe process, respectful of human rights.

The choice is not between migration and security or between migration and prosperity. The choice is between a future of integration and success for both or a future of distrust and resentment between us.

JEFFREY KAYE: The Calderon trip was not without controversy. Demonstrators protested what as Calderon's pro-business agenda.

And right next to the Mexican leftists, Americans in favor of tougher immigration controls yelled for Calderon to go back to Mexico.

CHERIE WOOD, Minuteman Project: He needs to get his people home. Last time I looked, this was our country. And this is a land of opportunity for Americans and legal immigrants, not fence-jumpers.

JEFFREY KAYE: Mexican officials say the timing of Calderon's trip was scheduled to take place after the primary elections in the states he visited.

Analysts say Calderon attempted to achieve a delicate balance in trying to lay the groundwork for future talks about immigration while, at the same time, avoid inflaming anti-immigrant sentiment.