WASHINGTON — President Bush welcomed Mexican President-elect Felipe Calderon to the White House on Thursday and got an earful about immigration restructuring and controversial legislation that Bush signed recently to construct 700 miles of wall along the common border.
"I explained our point of view that it isn't — can't — be a solution to the migration problem," Calderon told Spanish-language reporters in a news conference after meeting Bush. He also said he'd try to keep immigration from drowning out other important issues in the bilateral relationship.
Calderon met Bush immediately after the U.S. president had lunched with presumed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to mend relations and discuss areas in which they could find common ground.
In the wake of his party's defeat Wednesday, Bush identified immigration revisions as one of those areas, and he repeated that in a photo session with Calderon, noting that "I assured the president-elect that the words I said in the very Oval Office that we sit about a comprehensive immigration vision are words I still believe strongly."
Although Calderon is a conservative who shares many views with Bush and, like Bush, won an election that many in his country questioned, he's been a vocal critic of the Republican-passed legislation that expands existing border-area walls in California and Arizona. Like many Mexicans, he considers it an affront that's reminiscent of the Berlin Wall, dividing families on opposite sides of a border.
"I hope the new composition of the U.S. Congress allows a solution to the (immigration) issues," Calderon told Mexican reporters, noting that Democrats have promoted immigration restructuring that includes some form of legalization for millions of Mexicans who are living in the United States now without legal documents.
Immigration-overhaul advocates celebrated Tuesday's election results, which included the re-election of Arizona's pro-overhaul Democratic governor, Janet Napolitano, and the defeat of Arizona Republican congressional candidate Randy Graf. The Minutemen, a self-proclaimed border vigilante group, had backed Graf heavily.
Several of the loudest anti-immigration voices were quieted Tuesday at the polls. They included the influential Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., and Rep. Gil Gutknecht, R-Minn., who'd wrongly predicted that immigration issues would loom larger on Election Day than the war in Iraq.
"Immigration did not work as a wedge issue," said Celinda Lake, the president of Lake Research Partners, a Democratic polling firm.
Exit polls showed that Latino voters voted Democratic by a 3-to-1 ratio nationally, said Celinda Lake, the president of Lake Research Partners, a Democratic polling firm. This reversed Republican gains with Latinos cultivated by Bush before the more conservative wing of his party pushed border security issues to the fore.
Calderon's predecessor Vicente Fox hands over the presidential sash Dec. 1. Immigration was Fox's central theme in bilateral relations, and he was deeply disappointed when U.S. immigration restructuring fell by the wayside after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Mexico's president-elect is likely to move immigration off the public radar screen, said Andrew Selee, a Mexico expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
"He's probably going to try to lower the public emphasis on migration in the relationship and lobby more effectively for passage of some sort of immigration legislation in the United States," Selee said.
Indeed, Calderon said Thursday that he didn't want immigration to overshadow issues such as anti-narcotics cooperation and trade.
He proposed a commission to study a provision of the North American Free Trade Agreement that's causing turmoil in Mexico. Under NAFTA, which took effect in 1994, U.S. exports of corn and beans have been entering Mexico gradually with reduced duties and will be granted duty-free entry in 2008.
As a result, U.S. corn for animal feed and use in food products has supplanted Mexican-grown corn quickly and has worsened the gap between Mexico's rich north and its poor, agricultural south.
The issue of U.S. corn was so controversial in Mexico that it nearly cost Calderon the election. For many Mexicans, corn is a cultural symbol rooted in Mexico's Aztec and Mayan past, and Calderon said Thursday that he wanted this commission "to find a soft landing for the end of this transition period."