MERIDA, Mexico (Reuters) - President George W. Bush tried to reassure increasingly skeptical Mexicans on Tuesday that he has not given up on overhauling U.S. immigration policy despite failing in Congress last year.
Bush told Mexican President Felipe Calderon in their first summit meeting he would try again to convince U.S. lawmakers to pass his plans to soften immigration laws and allow a guest worker program.
“My pledge to you and your government, but more importantly the people of Mexico, is that I will work as hard as I possibly can to pass comprehensive immigration reform,” Bush said at a luxury hotel set in farm grounds on the outskirts of the southeastern Mexican city of Merida.
Mexico’s importance to U.S. business and trade is unrivaled in Latin America. Yet a sense of neglect has set in as Bush, who promised to make Mexico a priority when he took office in 2001, has become distracted by the Iraq war, which has made him even more unpopular in Latin America than he is at home.
Mexicans make up more than half of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States and Mexico is upset at U.S. plans to build a security fence along parts of the border to curb illegal immigration.
Calderon, a conservative who took office last December, was blunt in private talks with Bush. The Mexican leader expressed “deep concerns about whether or not America can pass such a law,” Bush said.
Calderon criticized the plan to build security fencing along 700 miles of border. “Migration cannot be stopped and certainly not by decree,” told reporters.
Mexico posed a complex challenge for Bush on the final stop of a Latin American tour aimed at shoring up his standing and countering the anti-U.S. influence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Calderon told a Mexican newspaper he did not have high hopes for Bush’s visit, which ends on Wednesday, and said he wanted Mexico to get closer to communist-run Cuba.
Bush, who speaks some Spanish, bantered with Mexican journalists in their own language and declined to use headphones for simultaneous translation when he listened to Calderon’s remarks at a welcome ceremony.
He won some relief in Mexico from the rowdy demonstrations that greeted him in the rest of Latin America.
A tiny group of protesters gathered near the ancient Mayan site at Uxmal which Bush visited with Calderon. The pair gazed out from a stone staircase at a temple as an archeologist explained the history to them.
“Bush, oil drinker, international terrorist, get out of Mexico,” read a protest banner on the highway to Uxmal.
Bush had made immigration reform pledges to Mexico’s former president, Vicente Fox, who left power without a deal.
Bush failed to get an overhaul through the Republican-led Congress last year due to conservative concerns about border enforcement. Whether Democrats in an uproar about the Iraq war will now be open to an immigration deal is uncertain.
“We need freedom of movement for workers just like there is for products but all they want to do is build a wall on the border,” said Bertha Elena Munguia, 49, one of some 250 people who protested against Bush in Merida on Monday night.
It was Bush’s fifth trip to Mexico since taking office but he has not gone to Mexico City in any of the visits. Security would be a headache in the chaotic, traffic-choked capital where the left-wing is strong.
Anger across Latin America at U.S. immigration and trade policies have helped bolster Chavez, who has shadowed Bush on a regional counter-tour hurling insults from a distance.
To Washington’s approval, Calderon has sent thousands of troops into a fight against Mexican drug cartels who killed around 2,000 people in a turf war last year.
But he repeatedly complains that the United States does not do enough to fight drug consumption at home or stop Mexican gangs buying weapons north of the border.