President George W. Bush prepared Wednesday to embark on his fifth trip to Mexico since taking office, heading for a tripartite summit including Canada that will deal with immigration, trade and border control.
The president will travel to the Mexican resort city of Cancun for talks Thursday and Friday with host Vicente Fox and the new Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper.
"I think it's very important for the three of us to continue to commit ourselves to a relationship that - a commercial relationship based upon trade, free and fair trade, a security relationship based upon kind of mutual understanding of how we can cooperate," Bush said Tuesday in an interview with CNN en Español.
Though the White House has provided no details about the agenda for the summit, the three men are likely to review the progress of the Partnership for Security and Prosperity in North America, which Bush, Fox and then-Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin established in a March 2005 meeting at the U.S. leader's Texas ranch.
The partnership was framed as a step to build on the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has bound the three economies together since 1994. And the trio is sure to discuss various trade disputes, the problem of undocumented immigration and efforts to enhance border security. Bush will also take the opportunity to hold bilateral talks with Fox and Harper, the latter a conservative who is anxious to mend ties with Washington that became frayed under the previous Liberal administrations in Ottawa.
At his Tuesday press briefing, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that in his encounter with Fox, Bush will "reiterate his commitment to comprehensive immigration reform." "It's also an opportunity to talk about the responsibilities that we all have, that both governments have, to address the issues along the border and to secure our borders," McClellan added. "There are responsibilities on both sides, and we all need to work together to make sure those responsibilities are met." Even as Bush journeys to Cancun, the U.S. Senate is set to begin debating an immigration bill that includes a provision for a guest-worker program, though it differs from the president's own proposal for such an initiative, and holds out the prospect of legalization for millions of undocumented immigrants.
Observers in Washington suggest that Congress may end up doing nothing substantial about immigration in this midterm election year, as the Senate will not accept the harsh measure passed earlier by the House, and the lower chamber is unwilling to support any bill that includes a guest-worker plan.
Undocumented immigration is not really an issue between the United States and Canada, but Ottawa objects to U.S. plans to start requiring passports from people seeking to cross the two nations' shared border.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government has been struggling to tighten control of the borders without impeding the legitimate flows of people and goods.
On the trade front, Bush has said he will use his meeting with Harper in Cancun to find "common ground" with the Canadians in the two countries' long-running dispute about lumber, a hope that many analysts see as misplaced.
Officials in Ottawa have made it clear that they will not sacrifice Canadian interests in the matter, nor sign accords simply for the sake of reducing trade frictions. At the core of the dispute is Washington's refusal to accept the decision of a NAFTA arbitration panel that it should stop imposing tariffs on imports of Canadian softwood lumber and should refund some $3.5 billion in duties U.S. authorities have already collected.
The United States and Mexico, meanwhile, have just resolved a dispute about imports of Mexican cement, and Washington is still waiting for its southern neighbor to accept a decision by the World Trade Organization against Mexico's tariffs on U.S. imports of high-fructose corn syrup, used in soft drinks.
In a departure from his usual practice when traveling on official business, Bush has plans for an excursion to the Maya ruins at Chichen Itza during his stay in the Yucatan peninsula.