MEXICO CITY – Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt said Saturday that they would forge ahead with immigration reform early next year, including some kind of legal residency for Mexican migrants already living in the United States.
Such reforms "are very consistent with fighting against terrorism," Gephardt, D-Mo., told a news conference after meeting with President Vicente Fox during the congressmen's three-day trip to Mexico.
"If you are regularizing status, you are also understanding the people you are dealing with are not terrorists," Gephardt said, noting that those who would benefit are "people who have been in the United States for a long time, paid taxes, obeyed the laws and been very good citizens."
Daschle said discussion on the reforms could be held during the next congressional session early next year. He said legalization would not be equivalent to a broad amnesty, and would require a background check and investigation.
"The opportunity for us to investigate and expel those who ought not be there is something we want to deal with, too," he added.
The two lawmakers also said they were interested in a European Union-style program of public investments and a more open border.
"I think that it ought to be our goal that we have a free pass border at some point in the future," Daschle said.
Daschle's office later said he was not endorsing any particular program, but rather supported having the same freedoms on the Mexican border as those that exist on the Canadian border. Canadians do not need visas to enter the United States, but Mexicans do.
"I think it's unlikely that we will obtain that goal anytime in the short term," Daschle said. "(But) if the United States and Canada have a border like that, we ought to have the opportunity to have that kind of border with Mexico as well."
Fox, facing trouble at home on both economic and political fronts, desperately needs to make some headway on gaining better treatment for Mexican migrants to the United States, a central policy goal of his administration.
Daschle and Gephardt said Mexico's concerns hadn't fallen from the U.S. agenda in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"Our commitment (to bilateral issues) is every bit as strong as what it was on Sept. 10," Daschle said, noting that Congress is expected to vote in the next few days to suspend "for at least one year" an anti-drug certification program that has angered Mexicans.
The certification procedure required the State Department to judge other countries' anti-drug efforts and threatened the loss of financial aid for nations that failed the test.
Mexicans, and many other Latin Americans, considered that an affront to their sovereignty.