WASHINGTON -- Mexican President Vicente Fox opened a state visit Wednesday by challenging President Bush to work out a bilateral migration agreement before the end of year.
Flanked by Bush on the White House South Lawn, Fox said he envisions an agreement that will allow him and Bush, before the end of their respective terms in office, "to make sure that there are no Mexicans who have not entered this country legally in the United States and that those Mexicans who have come into the country do so with the proper documents."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said he did not know what Fox meant by setting a year-end goal for an agreement. He said he hoped to find out in the meetings between U.S. and Mexican officials, which were being held after the welcoming ceremony.
"We can and must reach an agreement," Fox said in remarks delivered after an elaborate ceremony that featured full military honors and a 21-gun salute.
The former Texas governor made the point that relations with Mexico are vital to the two countries.
"Mexico was the first country I visited as president. Today, it is my privilege to welcome President Fox for the first state visit of my administration," Bush said.
"This is a recognition that the United States has no more important relationship in the world than the one we have with Mexico," Bush said. "Good neighbors work together and benefit from each other's successes."
Administration officials have not talked about timetables for reaching an agreement.
Bush said the United States "has no more important relationship in the world than the one we have with Mexico."
On Monday, Fox said he believes four to six years would be a reasonable time frame for reaching a migration agreement with the United States. Bush said on Tuesday he hopes an agreement can come sooner. Bush's term ends in 2005 and Fox's in 2006.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said Tuesday substantial progress had been made toward agreement on principles and that the two sides were beginning to work on specifics.
Bush praised Fox as a "Mexican patriot with a great vision for a great people, a vision of justice and prosperity. Your election signaled a new birth of freedom for Mexico and set an example for the whole world."
After their remarks, Bush met with Fox at the White House along with aides. After a State Department luncheon with Secretary of State Colin Powell serving as host, and meetings with captains of international finance, Fox will be Bush's guest at a state dinner in the evening.
In comments to reporters on Tuesday, Bush said a sound U.S. foreign policy starts with Mexico.
"My foreign policy begins with this simple proposition, but a profound one: The best foreign policy means you've got to have a good neighborhood, starts with your own neighborhood," he said.
Fox's popularity in Mexico, though still high, has been leveling off because of a declining economy and few victories to show for his nine months in office.
Bush seemed determined not to let Fox go home with nothing to show for his 62-hour Washington visit.
"We're going to sign a document, there'll be a statement, there will be all kinds of different subjects that will be covered. ... He (Fox) will be able to go back and tout a unique relationship," Bush said.
At another point, he said: "I will tell you that (Wednesday), you are going to see the maturation of a relationship that is the most cooperative of any relationship between governments in the United States and Mexico in our history."
Both sides favor a change of status for the estimated 3 million Mexican immigrants in the United States and also new policies that would allow large numbers of Mexicans to migrate legally to the United States as temporary workers.
The two countries have been working for months on establishing principles for a new system but have yet to discuss in a formal way how many Mexicans would benefit, among other details.
Many in Congress are forcefully opposed to leniency toward Mexicans who arrived illegally in the United States.
One such critic is Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, who announced Tuesday he will not be a candidate for re-election. Gramm has said he would consent to legalizing undocumented aliens "over my dead political body."
Fox will have a chance to persuade U.S. lawmakers of the need for change when he addresses a joint meeting of Congress on Thursday.
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