Secretary of State Colin Powell, heading into talks with Mexican officials, said Monday a U.S.-Mexican migration agreement is highly unlikely soon because of the need to ensure the safety of the American people.

Powell also said that although migration issues will be discussed, he is not prepared to offer specific proposals to the Mexican government.

A migration reform agreement that would give legal status to Mexicans working illegally in the United States has been a top priority of Mexican President Vicente Fox.

Powell told reporters that while President Bush "has not lost his desire to move forward on this front," post-Sept.11 security concerns make an agreement impossible for the time being.

He also suggested that the strong Republican showing in the Nov. 5 congressional elections set back prospects for an agreement even further.

"Progress has not been as rapid as we would like because of intervening circumstances," Powell said, alluding to the Sept. 2001 terrorist attacks.

Later, Powell sounded a more optimistic note during an appearance before the American Chamber of Commerce in Mexico City.

Alluding to the migration issue, he said, "I hope that in the year ahead we will see some progress. It is a priority and we will push forward."

Some House Democrats, led by outgoing Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., are pushing hard for a migration reform agreement. Gephardt has proposed granting legal status to undocumented immigrants who have resided in the United States for five years, worked for two years and have played by the rules.

Joining Powell here are a number of other Cabinet officers and other top officials, including Attorney General John Ashcroft, Education Secretary Rod Paige, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, Interior Secretary Gail Norton, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman.

Besides migration, several other troublesome issues are on the agenda, including Mexican complaints about U.S. agricultural subsidies and Mexico's water debt to the United States.

Powell expressed hope that in the next several weeks, Mexico will allocate Rio Grande water to Texas farmers so parched farmland in the state can produce.

"It's a serious problem in Texas," Powell said. "They need the water. Agriculture in that part of Texas is in trouble without additional water."

He said he had heard nothing from Mexican officials to suggest they will pay their water debt over the short term. The debt is tabulated on the basis of a 1944 treaty between the two countries.

The Bush administration's inability to move ahead on migration reform has stripped U.S.-Mexican relations of some of the warmth it had in the pre-Sept. 11 era. Fox believes the relationship has been dominated to an excessive degree by U.S. border security concerns.

George Grayson, a professor of government at the College of William and Mary, said Fox is hoping that a coalition of pro-immigration groups —— including union, business and Mexican-American lobbying organizations —— can help override resistance to immigration reform.

Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center of Migration Studies, said Fox has had no luck getting his domestic initiatives approved by the Mexican Congress and sees an immigration agreement with his northern neighbor as his best hope for a political breakthrough.