TOPICS > Politics

Mexico’s President Tours Northwest U.S., Urges Immigration Reform

May 26, 2006 at 5:25 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: From Yakima, Washington, we have a report from NewsHour correspondent Lee Hochberg of Oregon Public Broadcasting.

LEE HOCHBERG, NewsHour Correspondent: Never before has a Mexican president come to Washington State or to the small farming town of Yakima in the state’s agricultural area.

But with the national immigration battle coming to a boil, Mexican President Vicente Fox expanded his trade mission to Seattle Wednesday to include a speech to anxious and thrilled, mostly Latino, farm workers, 150 miles away at a Yakima apple orchard.

Fox speaks with migrants

The president greeted his audience, as the U.S. Senate headed toward yesterday's passage of its immigration bill.

VICENTE FOX, President of Mexico: (speaking in Spanish)

Addressing the audience in Spanish, President Fox, who previously has called the federal proposal for a 370-mile fence on the Mexican border "shameful" and "stupid," said he supported the Senate's guest-worker plan. It would require the United States' 12 million illegal immigrants exit the country and apply for re-entry.

VICENTE FOX: We have to match the employers with those who want to work. This is a well-informed formula.

LEE HOCHBERG: Aaron Ruiz was happy with what he heard.

AARON RUIZ, Immigrant: What I really like is that he worries about people here. He knows how the people work, how the people suffer, how the people risk their lives on the border to get a better chance for their families.

Provoking protests

LEE HOCHBERG: Although 8,000 people in Yakima, a town of 70,000, recently turned out to push for legalization of undocumented workers, the area is split on the issue. Yakima and the valley surrounding it have long attracted migrant workers, both legal and illegal.

But in the last two decades, the percentage of Latinos has doubled to 40 percent, and the area annually draws 25,000 additional migrant workers to harvest its crops. That growth disturbs some who turned out to protest President Fox's visit.

BOB BAKER, Anti-Fox Protestor: He needs to clean up his own act before he comes into our country and tells us how to do our legislation.

PROTESTOR: That's right, that's right, yes.

LEE HOCHBERG: Bob Baker is part of a group sponsoring a ballot initiative that would ban public aid for illegal immigrants in Washington State.

BOB BAKER: And it's not fair to the rest of us taxpayers, because we're paying for all these services that they're getting that they shouldn't be.

LEE HOCHBERG: Ruth Drolinger says her children's schools are being devastated by Mexican immigrants.

RUTH DROLINGER, Anti-Fox Protestor: We've got schools that have 80 percent of the school population are Spanish-speaking only. And, basically, our kids', their education is compromised. We don't want their culture; we don't want their language; we're Americans.

A mix reception

LEE HOCHBERG: President Fox told his audience that he does not support illegal immigration. He said Mexico must promote economic independence so people won't need to leave.

VICENTE FOX: We are working hard to generate employment in Mexico. Believe me: It's the number-one priority of my government.

LEE HOCHBERG: But the chairman of the Yakima County Republican Party, John Tierney, argued President Fox has failed to eliminate corruption or to reform Mexico's economy.

JOHN TIERNEY, Chair, Yakima County Republican Party: What Mexico really needs to do is do things that are going to improve the economy of Mexico so that the jobs are in Mexico and their citizens aren't going to want to leave. If they can get a job in Mexico to make the kind of money they make here, they aren't going to come here.

LEE HOCHBERG: But if they don't come, that would worry Yakima Valley farmer Jim Doornink, who depends on Latinos to pick his cherry crop.

JIM DOORNINK, Farmer: We're in competition with the world. And maybe the choice is we don't do agriculture here anymore, but I don't think that's a good choice.

LEE HOCHBERG: Doornink estimates 60 percent of the more than 200 workers who pick his cherries, peaches, apricots and apples are in Yakima illegally, despite the documentation they've shown him.

JIM DOORNINK: And those people, you know, pick my crops. And so if they're not here, I need to have another mechanism to have people come pick my crops. It doesn't seem to be a job that a part of our society wants to do.

Fox calls for more work in Mexico

LEE HOCHBERG: After his appearance in Yakima, President Fox met with business leaders in Seattle. The president repeated his pledge to create more jobs, so fewer Mexicans need to journey to the U.S.

He had another promise for Latinos at the Sea Mar Community Health Center in Seattle, which serves many Mexican illegals. He told them they could return to Mexico and receive full health care through a new plan his administration enacted.

But Jesus Bustos, who came to the U.S. in 1986 and won't say whether he's legal, said the health plan isn't enough to get him home.

JESUS BUSTOS, Immigrant: No, no, that wouldn't be...


INTERPRETER: Por que dices?

JESUS BUSTOS: (speaking in Spanish)

INTERPRETER: He says that medical insurance is not going to remove his hunger or, basically, feed his family.

LEE HOCHBERG: President Fox wrapped up his American tour today in California.