MERIDA, Mexico – President Bush wrapped up his Latin America tour on Wednesday with a pledge to Mexican President Felipe Calderon that he would seek an accord that straddles the middle ground between amnesty to illegal residents and booting out more than 12 million people.
“Amnesty is not going to fly. There is not going to be automatic citizenship; it just won’t work,” said Bush. “People in the United States don’t support that, and neither do I. Nor will kicking people out of the United States work. It’s not practical.”
Bush said he was optimistic about persuading congressional Republicans that resolving the status of millions of undocumented workers, mostly Mexican, would be in the best interests of U.S. security.
Eliminating hundreds of thousands of illegal crossings by job-seekers each year would free up authorities to concentrate on those smuggling drugs and guns, Bush said.
Calderon offered an impassioned and personal defense of the more than 10 million Mexicans working north of the border, including some of his extended family.
Responding to a question during a joint news conference, Calderon confirmed that he had relatives working in vegetable fields in the U.S., adding, “They probably handle what you eat.” But he said he didn’t know their legal status.
“What I can tell you is that they work and pay their taxes to the government” of the United States, Calderon said. “These are people who respect the United States. These are people who have children, who want these children to be educated with respect for the land where they live and for Mexico.”
Calderon narrowly won election last year with promises of drawing investment and creating jobs that would keep Mexicans home. He echoed that theme Wednesday, noting that half of the residents of his home state of Michoacan were working abroad, part of a nationwide expatriate community that last year sent home more than $20 billion.
“We want them to come back,” he said. “We want them to find jobs here in Mexico.”
Bush spoke sympathetically of the plight of men, women and children who embark on the often dangerous border crossing.
But Bush’s low popularity and lame-duck status have sapped the political capital he would need to shepherd immigration reforms through a Democrat-controlled Congress. During his trip, Bush acknowledged that Republicans need to reach a consensus before a deal can go forward.
Bush praised Calderon’s fight against the Mexican drug cartels that ferry drugs across the border in cars, trucks, planes and underground tunnels.
Calderon told Bush during a meeting that he cannot win his war on drugs without reductions in American demand for the marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine that moves by the ton through his country. The drug trade has overwhelmed and corrupted many local governments and cost more than 2,000 lives in Mexico last year.
Bush on Wednesday acknowledged a responsibility “to convince people to use less drugs.” Calderon said the two men had agreed to better coordination against organized crime. What increased role the U.S. would play in Mexico was unclear.