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In Mexico, President Bush Pledges Immigration Reform

March 13, 2007 at 5:15 PM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: It was all smiles today, as President Bush and Mexican president Felipe Calderon ate lunch together at a Yucatan Peninsula luxury hotel. But the pleasantries scarcely papered over deep tensions in the U.S.-Mexico relationship.

Mexican anger at the U.S., like that displayed during anti-Bush protests last night, was exacerbated last fall, when President Bush signed a law authorizing a 700-mile security fence along the two countries’ shared border. Hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants cross that border into the U.S. each year.

President Calderon has compared the fence to the Berlin Wall and said economic development in Mexico offers a better way to stem illegal migration.

Today, with President Bush at his side, Calderon took a less scathing tone, but he expressed his opposition bluntly.

FELIPE CALDERON, President of Mexico (through translator): Migration might not be stopped, and certainly not by decree. Mexicans do fully respect the right of the government and the people of the United States to decide within its territory what is best for its government’s security.

But at the same time, we do consider in a respectful way that we may truly stop the migration better by building a kilometer of highway in Michoacan or Zacatecas than 10 kilometers of walls on the border.

MARGARET WARNER: President Bush didn’t back away from the fence, but he did promise to push Congress to adopt a guest-worker program that would also offer some illegal immigrants the chance to become U.S. citizens.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Together we’re working to ensure that we have a secure and modern border that speeds the legitimate flow of people and commerce and stops those who threaten our common safety and prosperity.

There are decent, hard-working, honorable citizens of Mexico who want to make a living for their families. And so, Mr. President, my pledge to you and your government — but more importantly to the people of Mexico — is I’ll work as hard as I possibly can to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

MARGARET WARNER: This is the first meeting between the two presidents since Calderon took office in December after a razor-thin election. Since then, he’s moved aggressively against drug trafficking, dispatching thousands of army and police forces against drug cartel operations in western Mexico.

But today, Calderon said the U.S. has to do its part to reduce demand for drugs.

FELIPE CALDERON: In order to be successful in our struggle, we need the collaboration and the active participation of our neighbor, knowing that, while there is no reduction in demand in your territory, it will be very difficult to reduce the supply in ours.

MARGARET WARNER: The two presidents will conclude their meetings tomorrow.

'Relations are very complex'

Jose Carreno
El Universal
We believe that a lot of our problems are coming from the U.S. and because of the United States. And the U.S. believes that a lot of the problems are coming from Mexico and because of Mexico.

MARGARET WARNER: And now, two perspectives on the Bush-Calderon meeting. Jose Carreno is Washington correspondent and columnist for the Mexican newspaper El Universal. And Jeffrey Davidow was U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 1998 to 2002 and previously served as assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs. He's now the president of the Institute of the Americas at the University of California at San Diego.

And good evening, gentlemen. Welcome to the program.

Jose Carreno, just how deep are the tensions right now between the U.S. and Mexico?

JOSE CARRENO, El Universal: President Bush said that the relations are very complex, but you have issues like immigration that touches, one way or another, most of the Mexican population, which we found humiliating one way or another.

You have the issues like the security, where it is a problem of the chicken and the egg. We believe that a lot of our problems are coming from the U.S. and because of the United States. And the U.S. believes that a lot of the problems are coming from Mexico and because of Mexico.

MARGARET WARNER: You're talking there about the drug issue or criminality?

JOSE CARRENO: Drug and violence, drug and criminality. I mean, the (inaudible) violence on the border is delivered by American-made weapons, sold and made in the United States, and by money that came from the United States being for American vices.

MARGARET WARNER: And do you think that the tensions are deeper than they have been in the past, or is this just a natural strain between two neighbors?

JOSE CARRENO: It is a bit deeper than usual, I believe, because, in both countries, that has become part of the domestic debate, domestic political debate, and so that has restored the debate.

A 'balancing act' for Calderon

Jeffrey Davidow
Former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico
Relations between Mexico and the United States are always rocky in one way or another. They have become more so in recent years, because very high expectations were set at the beginning of the Bush administration.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Davidow, how do you see it? How deep do you think the tension is?

JEFFREY DAVIDOW, Institute of the Americas: Well, relations between Mexico and the United States are always rocky in one way or another. They have become more so in recent years, because very high expectations were set at the beginning of the Bush administration and the previous administration in Mexico, Vicente Fox.

They met very early in their administrations. And I think with very good will, but not much political skill, both agreed that they were going to fix the immigration problem. This created a tremendous expectation, and nothing has been delivered in six years, except measures which Mexicans find offensive and difficult.

I think, on a general day-to-day basis, the hundreds of things that are accomplished between Mexicans and Americans and the U.S. and Mexican governments continue. But it's clear that the perception of the average Mexican of the United States is at one of its lowest ebbs in recent memory.

MARGARET WARNER: And there was a recent BBC poll that showed that more than half of Mexicans now think the U.S. is a negative influence in the world. What's your sense of the political pressures that just that public opinion creates in Mexico?

JEFFREY DAVIDOW: Well, one of the things that it creates is that the Mexican president cannot be seen as being overly friendly with the U.S. president. He has to take a hard line publicly, and maybe even privately, as well, on issues like immigration and violence and what have you.

So welcoming an American president in Mexico is always a balancing act for the Mexican president because, of course, he wants to be courteous, he wants to show the people of the United States that Mexico is a friend. At the same time, he doesn't want to convey the impression to his own voters that he's giving in to the gringos.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think, Jose Carreno, that that's part of what we saw on display today? I mean, President Calderon was very hospitable, but he was also very firm on the immigration issue, certainly, and drugs.

JOSE CARRENO: Look, immigration is a very touchy subject in Mexico, as you say, and you have seen. And for Calderon -- President Calderon has to be make a very strong point in there.

But at the same time, the reality is that Mexico has a very deep relation, economic and social, with the United States. So, at the same time, as Ambassador Davidow said, he has to give the message that we are very good partners, no matter how bad are the tensions underlying it.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Ambassador, what do you think that President Calderon wants to accomplish from these two days of meetings and what he can reasonably expect to accomplish?

JEFFREY DAVIDOW: Well, I think President Calderon is in the early days of his administration. He wants to display to the Mexican people that he is a strong leader and a world leader, someone who's taken seriously by the rest of the world. And having the U.S. president come and visit him is an important step in that process.

I think he realizes that these meetings are unlikely to produce grand and new ideas or programs, but they will probably come up with a series of measures on various issues, in commerce and trade and what have you, that will allow both presidents to declare victory and say the visit was very worthwhile.

Immigration and the economy

Jose Carreno
El Universal
[Calderon] promised something very interesting: He promised to fight monopolies. Mexico is one of the countries with the most terrible distribution of income in the world. We have quite a few billionaires and too many poor.

MARGARET WARNER: Jose Carreno, there have been reports that President Calderon wants to de-emphasize immigration as the centerpiece of the U.S.-Mexico relationship, in that sense be a little different from President Fox. Do you think that's the case and, if so, why?

JOSE CARRENO: For a very simple reason. He knows the American system, and he understands that immigration is something that is out of President Bush's reach, in the sense of that it's a Congress issue, and that's a very complicated thing. So he doesn't want to raise the stakes and create more problems and face a backlash, as President Fox did.

So what he's doing, though, he's emphasizing security. Security, that's an important issue, where the U.S. and Mexico have the chance to collaborate and where they have some chance, if for nothing else, to show some advances in the relatively short term.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Ambassador, President Calderon has said, as we noted, that he thinks creating jobs, more jobs in Mexico, is a better way to discourage illegal migration. What is the economic situation in Mexico right now? Has it improved, or is it still a major pressure driving this migration?

JEFFREY DAVIDOW: Well, it's clearly a major pressure driving the migration. People do not leave Mexico because they particularly want to come to the United States. They leave Mexico because they cannot find work or they cannot find work which allows them to support their families.

Mexico needs to produce or create somewhere between one million and one-and-a-half million new jobs a year, and the economy is just not growing fast enough to do that. That's why people leave. And so, until such time as the Mexican economy gets in much better shape, we will see people trying to leave that country.

And, by the way, I think it's very important to note that this is a fact of life in Central America, as well, and that's why immigration was the main theme when President Bush visited Guatemala yesterday.

MARGARET WARNER: And so what is President Calderon doing, if anything, to actually try to spur job development? Is he doing anything different from his predecessor, Jose Carreno?

JOSE CARRENO: He's emphasizing micro-credit or micro-businesses on the one hand. He's emphasizing security, as a way to attract more foreign investment.

He promised something very interesting: He promised to fight monopolies. Mexico is one of the countries with the most terrible distribution of income in the world. We have quite a few billionaires and too many poor.

So one of the things that the government is emphasizing now is the need to face that kind of problem, to have a better distribution of income, and have also a better distribution of businesses, especially in the south of the country.

Now, as Ambassador Davidow said, it's only the beginning. It's only four months for government. Needs a lot of work to do.

Assessing Calderon's performance

Jeffrey Davidow
Former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico
The general approach of the Calderon government is to try to do a lot, not say very much, move slowly on major issues, and generally not engage in polemics or fights with the congress of Mexico.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Mr. Ambassador, this is just four months into President Calderon's administration. What kind of president is he turning out to be, I mean, in style and in approach?

JEFFREY DAVIDOW: He's turning out to be very careful, very cautious. He's looked at the mistakes that other presidents of Mexico and some other countries have made in their opening days of office, of promising too much, being overly exuberant, and not controlling their cabinets and their ministers and what they say.

So the general approach of the Calderon government is to try to do a lot, not say very much, move slowly on major issues, and generally not engage in polemics or fights with the congress of Mexico, in which the president's party does not have a majority. I'd say he started off very well, but slowly and cautiously.

MARGARET WARNER: Slowly and cautiously?

JOSE CARRENO: I won't say cautiously. Slowly, probably against his own preferences, but not by choice, I believe, not by choice. I believe Calderon would love to move faster but he doesn't have the choice. He doesn't have the votes; he doesn't have the strength to go faster.

MARGARET WARNER: Final quick question. President Calderon said in a couple recent interviews he does not want to be put in the position of being the sort of pro-American bloc in Latin America or the anti-leftist or anti-Chavez bloc. How strong an ally do you think he'll be to the United States?

JOSE CARRENO: Very strong, actually very strong. But he doesn't want to compete with Fidel Castro or Hugo Chavez, but I would say you will have to see his acts, not his words.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador, on that question?

JEFFREY DAVIDOW: I think President Calderon shares a basic worldview with the United States. No Mexican politician ever wants to be accused of being too pro-American. And in today's world, being anti-Chavez, being anti-Castro is seen as being pro-American, so I think he'll be careful on that.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow and Jose Carreno, thank you so much.