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In The News

Published Sunday, February 4, 2001

Bush, Fox hope nations will become better friends

Tim Weiner / New York Times

MEXICO CITY -- Americans have long seen Mexico as a river of illegal drugs and immigrants flowing north. But if the nations' two new leaders have their way, it may soon be seen as a fountain of energy, labor and trade.

Presidents Bush and Vicente Fox will meet Feb. 16 at Fox's ranch, in Bush's first border crossing as commander in chief. They have more in common than a taste for cowboy boots and enchiladas. Both have ideas that could transform the political and economic relationship between the superpower and the striving nation to the south.

"Our common border is no longer a line that divides us, but a region that unites our nations, reflecting our common aspirations, values and culture," said Colin Powell last Tuesday in Washington at his first news conference as secretary of state, held jointly with the new Mexican foreign minister, Jorge Casteneda.

Seeing the border as a symbol of unity, calling Mexico and the United States next-door neighbors with common needs and intertwined fates, has been long been Fox's political refrain. It is a fairly new tune for U.S. foreign policy, but the changes, symbolic and substantial, are already happening.

Bush wants to greatly expand trade across the border, calling commerce "the long-term solution" for illegal immigration. Both presidents say that if Mexico's economy becomes stronger, fewer Mexicans will head north looking for work.

"The thing that really has to be done to solve this problem is to continue to help the Mexican economy grow, so that jobs are in the south, so that the great magnet is no longer just in the north, but it is also within Mexico," Powell said Tuesday.

Since Fox's election six months ago, illegal migration has fallen off along the border, from California to Texas, if the plummeting number of arrests is any sign.

But millions of Mexicans work illegally north of the border, and U.S. labor leaders and senior Republican senators, as well as Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, say it is time to legalize them.

The goal should be to let them "come into America legally to work, have their rights protected and accumulate human and financial capital to take back to Mexico," said Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas.

Mexico is sending more than sweat and muscle: Last Monday, it started selling 50 megawatts a day of electricity to California, enough to power 50,000 homes, to help the state in its energy crisis. That Americans would turn to Mexico for something so basic could be a harbinger of something big.

Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have been talking for months about the need for a hemispheric energy policy -- "an approach that looks at all of North America as one giant market," as Cheney put it. If both sides agree, the United States could invest in Mexican power plants and get cheap electricity in return.

A common wall

There is even talk in Washington of ending the annual rite of certification -- a political process, which Mexico finds humiliating, in which the White House weighs whether the Mexicans are doing their part in the war on drugs.

It did not hurt that Mexico's Supreme Court had just ruled that hundreds of drug suspects may be extradited from Mexican jails by U.S. law enforcement.

All this is music to Fox's politically attuned ears. He wants it all to happen -- and more, much more. In time, he says, the two nations can be so integrated, economically and politically, that the border would be more like the common wall of adjoining homes and less like a militarized frontier.

It may not be that wild an idea. Mexico is "the house next door," Greenspan argued at a closed meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee in 1995, when Mexico's economy was near collapse and the Fed stepped in with a multibillion-dollar bailout.

"The house catches on fire, and cinders going in our direction threaten to burn our house down," he said, according to transcripts of the internal debates released last month. "Can we say we are not going to help them put out the fire?"

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