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Helms surprises Mexico hosts

Senators optimistic on migrant-worker pact

By Ricardo Sandoval
The Dallas Morning News, April 18, 2001

MEXICO CITY -- The United States and Mexico are moving closer to landmark agreements on the thorny issues of migrant workers and human rights abuses in Cuba, according to U.S. senators meeting with Mexican officials this week.

North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms, a longtime critic of the Mexican government, is leading members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on a three-day visit through Mexico City and meetings with President Vicente Fox and Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda.

The trip ends Wednesday with a meeting between the American legislators and their counterparts in the Mexican Senate ­ the first joint meeting of the influential foreign relations committees of the two countries.

Mr. Helms' trip to Mexico was trumpeted by analysts and some Mexican officials as a visit from an enemy, because of the conservative senator's history of sharp attacks on Mexican politicians.

But the trip has turned into an unlikely love fest between Mr. Helms and Mexican officials ­ especially Mr. Castañeda, a leftist intellectual and former Communist Party activist recently branded as unfriendly to the United States in a report written by Mr. Helms' aides.

Although the trip is not over, Mr. Helms has already surprised his Mexican hosts with effusive praise of the Mexican government, and an optimistic outlook for the future, binational relationship.

Political analysts said that on this trip, Mr. Helms ­ once considered a "closed wall" of negativity on Mexican issues ­ is demonstrating a new willingness to understand the country's complex issues.

"We discussed at length a new attitude on migration," Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on Mr. Helms' Foreign Relations Committee said Tuesday. "We're close to being able to reach an accommodation" that will satisfy U.S. lawmakers and Mexican officials alike.

Legislators in both countries are weighing proposals to create a new guest-worker program to feed Mexican laborers into American industries facing worker shortages. That would mark an incremental step toward Mr. Fox's long-term goal of opening the U.S.-Mexico border to the free movement of workers.

"Mexico should be the United States' most valuable partner and valuable friend," Mr. Biden said. "We realize that we've had hundreds of years of history to overcome. ... I envision a day when there are open borders from Canada to Costa Rica."

Sources familiar with meetings between the senators and the Fox administration said even the most hard-line among the Americans were impressed with the arguments for a new guest-worker program, offered by Mr. Castañeda.

The meetings yielded assurances from Mr. Castañeda that Mexico will crack down on the flow of northbound migrant workers.

At a briefing after his meetings with Mr. Fox and Mr. Castañeda on Tuesday, Mr. Helms instructed reporters to "stay tuned" on the issue of Cuba, an ally of Mexico and another of Mr. Helms' regular targets.

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