Mexican president calls U.S. immigration reform 'monumental step forward'

Hours after the U.S. Senate approved sweeping immigration reforms, Mexican President Vicente Fox praised the vote as a "monumental step forward" in the relationship between his country and the United States. "It is a moment that millions of families have been hoping for. This is the moment that millions of people have been working for," he said Thursday in an address to a joint session of the California Legislature. "Today's historic vote is a monumental step forward, but we recognize that there is more debate ahead."

Fox finishes his U.S. trip on Friday with meetings with California business leaders and the mayor of Los Angeles. The four-day visit also has taken him through Utah and Washington state. Although the Senate bill contains provisions Fox has protested such as a 370-mile (595 kilometers) stretch of triple-layer border fencing the Mexican leader sidestepped the controversy in his speech to California lawmakers.

Instead, he praised the Senate's action, which would tighten border security and create a path to citizenship for many of the estimated 11-12 million immigrants in the country illegally. Fox's visit has stirred passions among the fiercest partisans in the immigration debate. Some Republican lawmakers boycotted his speech, while others attended wearing yellow buttons that said, "No mas," which they said meant no more illegal immigration.

"Mexico has much more strict immigration laws than we do, yet they criticize us, said Assembly Republican leader George Plescia. "I don't think that's right." But Democrats embraced Fox, as did Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is trying to regain the trust of Hispanic voters in time for the fall election. The governor feted the Mexican leader at a reception, where they were serenaded by a mariachi band. Schwarzenegger, who has met Fox before, praised him as a savvy businessman whose acumen was helping to turn Mexico's economy around.

"Mexico and Californians have a great relationship," the governor said. "We are working on the immigration issue." Schwarzenegger and Fox discussed border issues at a private meeting at which the governor asked the Mexican leader to make border tunnels used by smugglers illegal. Fox agreed to consider it, according to the governor's office.

Schwarzenegger also told Fox that he was open to the idea of putting National Guard troops on the border, as U.S. President George W. Bush has proposed over the objections of Mexican leaders. But Schwarzenegger said he opposes militarizing the border.

The bill passed Thursday in the Senate calls for hiring additional border patrol agents, as well as a partial border fence and 500 miles (805 kilometers) of vehicle barriers. It also includes a guest worker program while giving millions of illegal immigrants a means of earning citizenship. A bill previously passed in the House has no citizenship provision and makes it a felony to be in the U.S. illegally.

Fox stressed the economic ties between Mexico and the U.S. and said more investment would create the jobs Mexicans need so they do not have to come to the United States to find work. "Over the years, we have moved away from a notion of distant neighbors to one of strategic partners," he said.

"We have pursued this course with the firm conviction that a legal, safe, orderly migration policy with full respect to human rights and labor rights will benefit the security and prosperity of both of our nations." On the eve of Fox's visit, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa warned that putting National Guard troops at the border and building barriers to stop immigrants could undermine the city's economic relationship with Mexico. "There's no question that putting up a wall, assigning the National Guard, could have a chilling effect on tourism," the mayor said. "Our economies are much more intertwined than most people really understand", reports the AP.

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