MEXICO CITY – An end to the U.S. political season coupled with enhanced border security has significantly improved the climate in the United States for comprehensive immigration reform, Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) said Tuesday.
But Powell cautioned that approval of the first major immigration reform in 18 years depends on the new Congress that will take office in January.
"We don't want to over-promise," Powell told a news conference during discussions here on a broad range of cross-border issues.
While Mexican officials had once expected "the whole enchilada" on immigration reform, Powell said officials of both countries have lowered their sights.
"We are now taking little bites of the enchilada," Powell told local media. Joining Powell for his 20-hour stay here were five fellow Cabinet (search) secretaries.
After speaking with reporters, Powell met with President Vicente Fox (search), who has made migration reform in the United States a top foreign policy priority.
He believes that the millions of Mexicans who work in the United States should be granted legal status, enabling them to live without fear of arrest and deportation.
During his discussions, Powell said he reaffirmed President Bush's "plan to work with our new Congress to develop a temporary worker program to match willing foreign workers with willing U.S.. employers."
The comments suggested that the administration was giving priority to the provision in Bush's proposal that would allow workers still in their home countries permission to work in the United States so long as they have a job offer.
A more controversial provision — which Powell did not mention — would allow undocumented aliens already in the United States to achieve legal status if they can prove they have employment. Beneficiaries would be granted permission to remain in the United States for three years, then be allowed to stay on if certain conditions are met.
Many in Congress are wary about doing favors for Mexicans and other migrants who arrived in the United States without official permission, seeing them as lawbreakers. Mexicans constitute by far the largest illegal immigrant community in the United States. The overall total is believed to be around 10 million.
Bush and Fox agreed in 2001 to press for immigration reform but the September 11 terrorist attacks soured Congress on the idea. Since the attacks, enhanced border security has been the dominant U.S. goal in relations with Mexico.
Powell indicated that he is pleased with Mexican cooperation on that issue.
"We are coming out of the 9/11 period and doing a better job of securing our border," he said. He also suggested that Congress may be freer to act next year, mindful that no member faces an election until 2006.
Fox said the time is ripe for an immigration accord. "We have done all the analysis, diagnostics and problem solving possible," Fox said in a radio interview Monday. "There's no reason to lose much time."
Powell made his rounds on a warm sunny day amid signs that U.S.-Mexican relations are on a reasonably sound footing. Plans are underway for Mexico to honor Bush with a state visit next year, reciprocating a September 2001 state visit Fox made to Washington.
Among other issues, Powell and his delegation discussed Mexico's concerns about treatment of Mexicans on U.S. soil. Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez, who joined Powell at the news conference, said that issue is "a permanent concern" of the two governments.
Relations were at a low point last year because of differences over U.S. policy in Iraq and decisions by American courts to carry out the death sentence against Mexican citizens without regard for international legal norms that require consular access to the accused.