Immigration bill gives Mexico's Fox political boost

By Frank Jack Daniel
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican President Vicente Fox's ruling party could be the big winner of an immigration overhaul passed in the U.S. Senate as it tries to hold on to power in July elections.
The Senate easily passed a bill on Thursday that would give millions of illegal immigrants, many of them Mexicans, a chance to become American citizens.
The most sweeping immigration bill in two decades, it could be watered down in a tough battle with the House of Representatives, where many lawmakers favor a crackdown on immigration, and it may never become law.
However, it is unlikely to be reach a vote before the July 2 elections in Mexico, allowing Fox and his conservative ruling party's candidate Felipe Calderon to hail it in the meantime as vindication of Fox's relentless courting of Washington.
The president is on a tour of the United States to lobby on immigration issues and responded jubilantly to the news from the Senate, saying it was a victory won by his government and the determination of millions of Mexicans living in America.
"It is a truly joyous day, a historic day," he said after raising his fist in victory to Mexican reporters traveling on his presidential jet.
Opposition politicians, led by leftist presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, have criticized Fox for not being tougher with the United States on migration issues.
"I don't know what the president is celebrating," Lopez Obrador told reporters on a campaign trip in the northern town of Apodaca.
The leftist says emigration from Mexico has been fueled by Fox's free market economic policies and the lack of jobs.
"It surprises me that he is trying to use this affair as if it were a triumph of his government when he should be ashamed because four million Mexicans who have not had the opportunity to work during his government have left the country," he said.
Criticism of Fox intensified after President George W. Bush this month vowed to send up to 6,000 National Guard troops to the border, and the Senate approved building 370 miles of new high-security border fences.
Analysts say the new bill gives Fox something to show for his efforts and helps Calderon because there is little danger of it being knocked down this side of voting day.
"Even if it goes to conference and gets dusted away it ain't going to happen in the next week, its going to take a while and the elections will be done by then," said political analyst Federico Estevez.
With Fox barred under law from seeking reelection, Calderon and Lopez Obrador are locked in a tight race and campaigning has turned nasty in the last two months with both sides launching negative TV ads.
Mexicans are the largest immigrant group in America and would be the main beneficiaries if the Senate's reform bill makes it into law as it proposes a guest worker program and would put most of the 12 million illegal immigrants on a path to U.S. citizenship.
Immigration expert Arturo Solis, of the Tijuana-based Center for Border Studies and Human Rights, said the ruling National Action Party, PAN, would likely reap political advantage.
"The government knows how to sell the idea that the victory was theirs to the Mexicans, he said. "This could definitely benefit the PAN in the elections."
Millions of immigrants took part in massive marches in U.S cities in May to push for reforms and pressure against the criminalization of immigrants.
Some were delighted by the Senate bill.
"This is the only good news we have had in a long time," Guatemalan migrant Alexander Chung, 21, said from a Catholic church shelter in the Mexican border town of Reynosa as he prepared to cross illegally into Texas.
"We know they are going to send troops to the border and security is really serious, so this news gives us a lift."
(Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor)