Obama immigration pledge a boon for Mexican leader
By ALEXANDRA OLSON (AP) – 15 hours ago

MEXICO CITY — President Barack Obama just made life a little easier for his Mexican counterpart. His promise to tackle immigration reform this year ensures Felipe Calderon will not come home empty-handed when he visits Washington in two weeks.

The pledge sets a lighter mood from just a week ago, when Calderon vowed to push immigration reform during his May 19 trip, even while Obama warned "there may not be an appetite" in Congress to take on the sensitive issue.

"Obama making it very clear that he believes in reform is probably something that will make Calderon's trip a little more successful," said Peter Hakim, president emeritus of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. "He can say some things that the Mexican president would very much welcome, and Calderon understands the difficulty of this issue in Washington."

Obama remained cautious in his comments at a Cinco de Mayo celebration at the White House on Wednesday acknowledging immigration reform would be difficult and making no commitment to finishing the process this year.

Even so, it's a sign of commitment that Calderon needs amid Mexican outrage over Arizona's tough new immigration law. His government has protested the bill — even issuing a travel warning against the U.S. state — while trying to assure Mexicans that the Obama administration remains sympathetic to the plight of migrants.

While many Mexicans are skeptical Obama will succeed, his pledge revived some good will.

"I like Obama because he is the first president of color and he wants to help the have-nots," said Rogerio Cantu, 51, who lives in Hermana, a small farming community in northeastern Mexico where many houses are empty because so many residents have left for the U.S. However, Cantu, who himself has lived illegally in the U.S. several times, had little hope for change.

"I've heard the same things during 20 or 30 years," he said.

Arizona's new measure — which makes it a crime under state law to be in the country illegally — has thrust immigration to the forefront of U.S.-Mexico relations at a time when both governments seemed content to leave the issue on the back burner.

Attempts to overhaul the U.S. immigration system have repeatedly floundered since former Mexican President Vicente Fox tried to make it a banner issue nearly a decade ago, demanding what became known as "the whole enchilada" in migration reform.

The U.S. economic meltdown has complicated Obama's election-campaign promise to make immigration a priority, and bipartisan support remains lacking in the Senate. Even Arizona Sen. John McCain, Obama's former Republican rival for the presidency who once championed an eventual path to citizenship for illegal immigration, has lauded his state's new hardline law.

Faced with that atmosphere, Calderon has been reluctant to trumpet the cause.

"It was an issue that both sides were keeping very quiet in their bilateral discussions," said Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center. "Calderon is in a better place now to bring this up now that it's back on the U.S. domestic agenda."

Even as the drug war has taken center stage in bilateral relations, life for migrants in the United States has become tougher amid police raids, tighter border security and job scarcity.

Immigration across the U.S.-Mexican border has plummeted, and with it, remittances sent home from migrants. That only makes it more urgent for illegal migrants to have a path for legalizing their status, said Mexican central bank President Agustin Carstens.

"In that sense, it's very important for the United States to reach a migration agreement as soon as possible ... and guarantee the rights of our compatriots abroad," Carstens said Thursday during a conference on remittances.

There was no immediate comment on Obama's pledge from the Mexican government, but it raised hope among immigration advocates.

"If Obama has already spoken about a reform it's because he knows the United States needs all those Hispanics who work in the fields and in construction," said Francisco Loureiro, who runs a migrant shelter in Nogales, across the border from the Arizona town of the same name. "I have faith Obama will achieve an immigration reform."

Others, however, worried about whether many of the 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States — the majority of whom are Mexican — would be able to meet the stringent requirements that any new law would require for citizenship. Draft legislation released last week calls for illegal immigrants to pay a fine and back taxes if they want to progress toward legal status.

"If they can make it easier for youths to get their papers, great, but all that about paying fines and taxes — how? All the money they save they send here," said Alicia Rodriguez, an Hermanas resident whose 19-year-old grandson illegally crossed into the U.S. three weeks ago.

Associated Press Writers Olga R. Rodriguez and E. Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City; and Mark Walsh in Hermanas, Mexico, contributed to this report.

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