President travels to border to greet returning Mexican-Americans

NOGALES, Mexico (AP) - Fulfilling a campaign pledge to honor Mexicans living in the United States, President Vicente Fox launched a two-day tour of the U.S. border on Tuesday to personally greet Mexican-Americans heading home for the holidays.

Fox, who has called Mexican migrants ''heroes,'' designed the trip to strike a symbolic blow against the delays, abuse and extortion that the 7 million Mexican adults living in the United States often face on the way home.

Throughout his three-year presidential campaign - and since his election July 2 that ousted the party that had ruled Mexico for more than seven decades - Fox has courted Mexican-Americans like no candidate ever had.

So it was fitting that one of his first trips as president - Fox took office Dec. 1 - was to the border, where he has vowed to protect migrants from abuses and has pleaded with them not to forget their homeland.

Specifically, Fox's trip was intended to crack down on the ''mordida'' - literally the ''bite'' of corruption - that migrants face from Mexican border officials on their way back into Mexico. Despite a decade-old effort to protect holiday travelers, corruption has continued.

The program ''was meant to stop the shakedowns, but enforcement has been lax or slipping,'' said Douglas S. Massey, co-director of the Mexican Migration Project at the University of Pennsylvania. ''So now Vicente Fox is making a big show of making sure the regulations are being followed.''

Fox's schedule was taking him to eight border facilities over two days in the cities of Nogales, across from the Arizona town of the same name, Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, across from Laredo, Texas.

Fox said he would drop in for surprise visits ''and get rid of any official who does not treat people with dignity.'' But there seemed to be little surprise in the staged visits, which feature speeches by governors and other officials.

Fox's courtship of Mexicans living in the United States isn't just for their benefit. The money they wire home now accounts for Mexico's third-largest source of income, after oil and tourism.

Fox has urged them not to forget their homeland - and to invest money in their hometowns.

The Mexican government has been slowly moving to accept emigrants in recent years, and in 1998 revised the constitution to create a Mexican ''nationality'' for emigrants who have become citizens of foreign countries.

But Fox has gone further, praising emigrants as ''heroes'' and plotting ways to improve Mexico's economy so that eventually, they will want to come home.

He also is pressuring the United States to issue more visas so Mexicans can travel north legally to work, and he advocates working with the United States and Canada so that eventually, borders are simply opened much like they are to citizens of European Union countries.

This week's tour seemed to highlight the importance of migrants in Fox's vision for a new Mexico.

''These border visits will be a politically popular move for Fox,'' Massey said. ''He's recognizing these people as Mexicans rather than dismissing them as traitors.''

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