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Mexico Seeks Immigration Spotlight

Less than a week before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, visiting Mexican President Vicente Fox challenged President Bush to reach an immigration agreement by the end of the year.

That proposal, considered unrealistic by U.S. officials at the time, became even more so after Sept. 11 as the administration switched its attention to combating terrorism. Other issues, including immigration overhaul, were relegated to the back burner.

This week, however, high-level talks on immigration-related issues are resuming with Mexico, although under a new order of priorities.

Border security, not surprisingly, is getting more attention than before. Less urgency is being given to such issues as establishing a guest worker program for Mexicans and finding ways to allow many undocumented Mexican aliens to remain in the United States legally if they meet certain requirements.

A session set for Monday afternoon was to involve Bush's director of homeland security, Tom Ridge, and Fox's national security adviser, Adolfo Aguilar Zinser.

With the administration intent on keeping terrorists out of the United States, the 2,000-mile border with Mexico has become an obvious focus. Ridge and Aguilar Zinser planned to discuss ways to make the border more secure.

Susan Neely, Ridge's communications director, had no comment on the meeting except to say it is a good opportunity for an exchange of views.

Tightened measures imposed after Sept. 11 have led to bottlenecks at the border and disrupted the flow of goods and people.

An administration official said the two sides want to find ways of keeping potential terrorists and other undesirables out while keeping the disruption of legitimate cross-border activity at a minimum.

Aguilar Zinser said in an interview with The Washington Post last week that security "has to take its central place in the agenda, but not at the expense of displacing everything else."

The number of Mexicans trying enter the United States illegally has dropped dramatically in recent months, the result of not only tightened security but also of a struggling U.S. economy and fear of anthrax. And like many other popular tourist destinations, Mexico has suffered a severe tourism slump because of the widespread fear of travel by airplane.

On Tuesday, midlevel talks will be held on legalizing the status of the 3 million or so undocumented aliens in the United States, along with related issues.

Fox said a week ago he hopes to "pick up the agenda where it was left before September 11 and continue advancing with it."

That view is shared by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt.

On Saturday during a visit to Mexico, they said they plan to push ahead with immigration reform.

Gephardt, D-Mo., told a news conference after meeting with Fox that hard-working undocumented aliens should not be treated as criminals.

Those who would benefit under immigration reform, he said, are "people who hav been in the United States for a long time, paid taxes, obeyed the laws and been very good citizens."

Daschle, D-S.D., said discussion in the Congress on the reforms could be held early next year.

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