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Mexican president says he'll urge California to give illegal migrants driver's licenses

OLGA R. RODRIGUEZ, Associated Press Writer

Thursday, December 18, 2003

(12-18) 11:42 PST NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico (AP) --

President Vicente Fox assured migrants returning for the holidays Thursday that he would fight to give them more opportunities in the United States, including the right to a driver's license in California.

California lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger repealed a law passed last September that would have allowed an estimated 2 million illegal migrants in California to begin applying for driver's licenses after Jan. 1.

Making his annual trip to the border on the International Day of the Migrant, Fox said his government would urge Schwarzenegger to reconsider his decision.

"We will be fighting as hard as we can to convince the state of California to once again issue licenses to all migrants because they are working people, decent people, honest people," he said.

Schwarzenegger has suggested he might sign some sort of driver's license bill if it included more safeguards and background checks on applicants.

Since taking office in 2000, Fox has traveled each year to Mexico's northern border to greet the wave of migrants -- both legal and illegal -- coming home to spend the holidays with family members.

Many returning migrants have complained that customs officials and police seek bribes and confiscate gifts during their trek home. Fox has made improving their trip one of his top priorities.

His government has posted more than 1,000 independent observers at major crossings and installed hotlines for migrants to report abuse. Fox himself calls migrants heroes, noting that remittances they send to family members are Mexico's second-largest source of foreign income behind oil.

"Migrants are a real example of courage, of bravery, of the desire to overcome," he said Thursday in Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, Texas.

Fox stopped to ask 30-year-old Senaida Garcia if she had been mistreated in any of the three trips she has taken this year into Mexico. Garcia, traveling with her husband and 11-month-old baby girl, lives in Pharr, Texas, but often visits her family in northern Mexico.

"I told him they always treat us well when we come," she said.

One million migrants made the trek home last year during the holidays. The number of who returned this year won't be available until January, but authorities say they believe fewer are crossing back into Mexico because security measures along the border have made returning more difficult.

Many undocumented workers are staying in the United States for years at a time because smugglers' fees can cost up to $2,000 and illegal crossings through remote deserts or in sealed tractor-trailers have become more dangerous.