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http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/1483656.stm

Friday, 10 August, 2001, 07:25 GMT 08:25 UK

US and Mexico agree immigrant plan

The US and Mexico have reached a broad agreement aimed at resolving the status of millions of illegal Mexican immigrants in the US.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft met their Mexican counterparts - Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda and Attorney General Santiago Creel in Washington on Thursday to discuss the immigration problem.

Speaking after the meeting Mr Powell said both countries would now discuss concrete proposals, including granting temporary residence to Mexicans working in the US.

He said such a scheme would fulfil the needs of the American economy without putting American workers at a disadvantage.

Focus on fairness

It is estimated that about three million Mexicans are living illegally in the US and that most of them could benefit from the programme.

"We want a system that focuses on fairness. The immigration system must be fair... the only path must be the legal path," Mr Powell said.

"We want to make sure that migration to the United States from Mexico is safe, legal, orderly and dignified," he added.

The agreement would take into account "the rights and the benefits Mexicans need - all Mexicans," Mr Castaneda said.

Experts say President Bush is keen to expand his support base among Hispanic voters - more than 60% of whom are of Mexican origin.

Last week, Mr Bush spoke out in favour of the immigrants, "remember, we've got hardworking citizens who are willing to walk 400 miles of desert in blistering heat to find work," he said.

"And our nation must treat these folks with respect and help them when they're hurting," he added.

Anger

Mr Castaneda said they hoped to have an agreement in place by next month - when the Mexican president, Vicente Fox, visits Washington, although Mr Powell said that there was no deadline.

But the proposal has angered immigrant communities from countries other than neighbouring Mexico, who would be left out of any deal and continue to face deportation.

President Fox stepped up his pressure on Washington to provide some sort of legal status for the millions of illegal immigrants following Mr Bush's visit to Mexico in February.

Mexico, Canada and the United States launched their North American Free Trade Agreement in 1992 and have seen their three-way trade increased by 128%.

But income disparities between the US and Mexico remain sharp, causing many Mexicans to head north seeking work.