Bush Proposes New Aid to Mexico

By: Mike Allen
The Washington Post, March 20, 2002


President Bush plans to direct $30 million to poor areas of Mexico over the next year in an effort to discourage illegal immigration by strengthening businesses there, administration officials said yesterday.

Bush will announce the plan in Mexico as part of a four-day Latin America trip that will begin Thursday. He had resisted earlier requests from Mexican President Vicente Fox for massive assistance to parts of his country that have struggled even as the border region boomed after the 1993 signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Some authorities on Mexico, citing a World Bank estimate that the country needs $20 billion a year in new infrastructure for 10 years, said Bush's plan was too small to stem immigration. But Mexican officials expressed confidence the United States will increase its spending if the program proves effective.

The White House has wanted to repair relations with Mexico and U.S. Hispanics after fallout from the Sept. 11 attacks delayed plans to ease the path to legalization for some of the 3 million undocumented Mexicans in this country.

During a visit by Fox that ended Sept. 6, Bush called on Congress to make such a change. Although Bush says he remains committed to the goal, officials of both governments say broad liberalization of U.S. immigration laws is not politically feasible now, in part because some of the airliner hijackers were Arab immigrants in the country illegally.

The new aid fund, called the U.S.-Mexico Partnership for Progress, will use U.S. government money to promote private investment in the Mexican countryside. Officials said the plan will help keep families together, since many of the men who trek to the United States leave their wives and children behind.

The program will include subsidies for Mexican entrepreneurs who want to buy franchises of U.S. brands, education about financial services so Mexican immigrants can send money home more cheaply and partnerships to encourage a secondary mortgage market in Mexico. The program also calls for greater cooperation between universities and laboratories on both sides of the border, and for the creation of a labor and talent bank.

Eduardo G. Sojo, Fox's economic policy coordinator, said in an interview that the two presidents will invite each U.S. state to pay for college scholarships for Mexicans. "The commitment of President Bush is something we appreciate a lot," Sojo said.

At the same time, Bush is planning to toughen border protection by merging the Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which includes the Border Patrol, officials said. Aides recommended the plan to Bush yesterday and said they expect him to approve it. The new border enforcement agency would fall under the Justice Department.

Balancing his border policy is among the toughest issues facing Bush. Hispanics are the fastest-growing group of U.S. voters. This fall, Latino voters could prove crucial in several House races.

Looking ahead to his departure for Mexico, Bush urged the Senate yesterday to follow the House's lead and pass a bill that would allow many illegal immigrants to remain in the United States while applying for permanent residency.

"I want to show our friends, the Mexicans, that we are compassionate about people who live here on a legal basis, that we don't disrupt the families for people who are here legally," Bush told reporters after a Cabinet meeting.

Officials from the Bush and Fox administrations jointly planned the spending of the new aid, which is notably less than the billions of dollars Fox had suggested the U.S. invest in highways, health clinics and other facilities in areas of Mexico that did not benefit from NAFTA. Since the trade agreement took effect, Mexico has become the nation's second-largest trading partner and fastest-growing export market.

Robert A. Pastor, the National Security Council's director of Latin American affairs under President Jimmy Carter, called Bush's plan "quite trivial" considering "the central issue of North American relations: the development gap between Mexico and its two northern neighbors, which is the reason for the migration."

But M. Delal Baer, a member of a working group that contributed to the plan, said it was built on the philosophy that government seed money could create private initiatives that would last long after Bush and Fox leave office. "This is the philosophy of giving a man a fishing rod, not a fish," she said.

Maria Cardona, communications director of the Democratic National Committee, called the plan cynical.

"This gives [Bush] a way to deliver something in his visit with Fox that is satisfactory to the right wing of his party," Cardona said.

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