WACO, Texas – President Bush, seeking smooth relations with U.S. neighbors despite dustups over immigration, trade and defense, announced on Wednesday a pact with Canada and Mexico to broaden cooperation on security and economic issues.
"We had a good discussion about prosperity and security. It turns out the two go hand-in-hand," Bush said. "We've got a lot of trade with each other and we intend to keep it that way. We've got a lot of crossings of the borders and intend to make our borders more secure and facilitate legal traffic."
The need for strong relations among the three North American neighbors will outlast political developments, Bush said.
"We've got a lot to do, so we charged our ministers with the task of figuring out how best to keep these relationships vibrant and strong," he said.
Bush greeted Mexican President Vicente Fox (search) with a hearty handshake and said "Hola" as Fox stepped out of his limousine at a Baylor University library, adorned with the flags of the three nations. A few minutes earlier, the reception Bush offered Martin was only slightly less effusive.
"The world does not stand still," Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin (search) said in French, through an interpreter. "In a world in constant change we need the renewed partnership — more strong, more dynamic and we must have a roadmap that will bring us there."
The three issued a statement jointly saying that while all three nations have worked to enhance trade and have taken steps since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 to address terrorism "more needs to be done."
"We must develop new avenues of cooperation that will make our open societies safer and more secure, our businesses more competitive and our economies more resilient," the statement said.
The leaders met for more than an hour at the university and were having lunch at Bush's sprawling ranch in nearby Crawford. It was during less formal conversations that some of the most contentious issues in U.S.-Mexican and U.S.-Canadian relations were expected to surface.
Ottawa, for instance, is irritated that the United States is keeping its border closed to Canadian beef, because of lingering concerns over mad cow disease (search), and maintaining punitive tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber. Washington isn't pleased at the Canadian government's surprise snub last month of U.S. plans for a North American missile defense shield (search).
Martin said Canada would not reconsider its decision against joining the U.S. missile defense program. But he added, "The defense of North America is not only going to take place in North America. Canada is playing an increasing role in Afghanistan."
With Mexico, Fox is pushing the United States to back immigration reform. Bush's hopes for a guest-worker program were dashed by the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, which refocused U.S. attention on securing borders.
Bush still advocates liberalizing immigration, but the proposal has generated broad opposition among conservatives, a core Bush constituency.
"There's some million people a day crossing the border from Mexico into the United States, which presents a common issue, and that is how do we make sure those crossing the border are not terrorists or drug runners or gun runners or smugglers," Bush said. "I have told the president that I will continue to push for reasonable, common sense immigration policy with the United States Congress."
If there is an opening for a job an American doesn't want to take -- a "willing worker and a willing employer" -- that job ought to be filled by a legal immigrant.
"I think we ought to have a policy that does not jeopardize those who stood in line to become legal citizens," he said. "But there's a better way to enforce our border, and one way is to be compassionate and decent about the workers who are coming here to the Unitded States."
With Mexico, relations also are strained by the Bush administration's anger over a high Mexican tax on soft drinks made with high fructose corn syrup, water owed to U.S. farmers and the suspicion that Mexico could do more on drug trafficking and to address fears that Al Qaeda (search) agents are slipping into the United States from the south.
Mexican officials complain about vigilante groups hunting illegal immigrants in Arizona, new U.S. walls being built along the border and the still-stalled status of a guest worker immigration liberalization proposal.
U.S. officials fully expect many -- if not all -- of these issues to come up, raised casually by the leaders during the 20-minute helicopter ride from the meeting site to Bush's ranch, or over the hour-long lunch there, or during a brief tour the president planned to give his guests of his beloved property.
Also not an official part of the meeting but expected to be discussed was Bush's unrealized wish -- backed by Mexico and Canada -- to create a hemisphere-wide free trade area.