Mexican expatriates celebrated by Fox


FRESNO, Calif. (AP) – Often scorned at home and ignored in the United States, migrant laborers found themselves celebrated as heroes Thursday by Mexican President Vicente Fox.

Nearly 3,000 people, including many in the white Stetson hats favored by field workers, listened intently and cheered wildly as Fox came to the center of the state’s agriculture industry to praise them and promise to work on issues that matter most in their lives.

He pledged to push Mexico’s congress to allow people to vote outside the country by the 2003 legislative elections, to work with U.S. officials on a solution to long-standing disputes over immigration, and to make it easier for the expatriates to return home.

”You are important, believe me, very important,” Fox told the audience in Fresno’s convention center, as cheers drowned out his next few words.

Such talk is a change of course for Mexican leaders. The money sent home by expatriates is one of Mexico’s largest sources of income. But the country’s leaders did little to court the men and women who fled their homes to work long hours and difficult jobs in the United States.

Fox campaigned in California last May and views the expatriates as a source of financial and moral support for his right-of-center National Action Party and its legislative agenda.

Fox’s current visit is his first to the United States since his inauguration in December.

After the morning rally with agriculture workers, Fox visited a suburban Los Angeles elementary school in San Fernando with first lady Laura Bush.

Speaking at Morningside Elementary School, Fox asked Mrs. Bush to use her influence to help Mexicans working in the U.S. get an affordable university education.

Mrs. Bush listened without comment, but told The Associated Press afterward that the federal government should not be involved.

”I think that’s something that’s really left up to the state,” she said.

Gov. Gray Davis, who accompanied Mrs. Bush and Fox to the school, has said it would be too expensive to offer in-state tuition to non-citizens.

Still, Fox’s plea won repeated standing ovations from the largely Latino crowd of parents.

Later, at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, Fox was met by about two dozen protesters who lined the street, waved American flags and shouted slogans against immigration.

Inside, during a meeting of Town Hall Los Angeles, a nonprofit group that hosts speeches by prominent international figures, Fox told local business leaders that the United States and Mexico are partners and called for greater investments in his nation.

Fox was greeted with a standing ovation and prolonged applause by the 100 people at the event after being introduced by Davis as ”a president of vision, a man of the people and a great friend of California.”

Fox began his remarks with a brief introduction in Spanish then delivered his speech in strongly accented but clear English. He devoted much of his talk to lobbying American investors to consider business opportunities in Mexico.

Fox’s tour with Davis also represents the growing influence of Latinos in the nation’s most populous state. The governor noted in Fresno that more than a third of California’s 34 million residents are of Mexican descent.

Fox ended his afternoon in Los Angeles by tackling a number of questions about immigration and human rights during a forum at the University of California, Los Angeles.

During the event hosted by KMEX, the Los Angeles flagship station of Spanish-language broadcast network Univision, Fox said Mexico is like the ”middle of the sandwich” when it comes to immigration.

”What we are asking from the U.S. is what we must be able to offer to Central America,” Fox said. ”That is to respect their human rights and allow them to return comfortably (to their own country), or if they have documentation to allow them to pass.”

Fox and Davis sat side by side on stools in front of an audience of 400 invited guests at UCLA’s MacGowan Hall.

Outside the hall, a group of protesters wore black ski masks to show their support for the Zapatista movement and its leader, Sub-Commander Marcos.

Marcos and his followers are currently in Mexico City, where they marched from Chiapas to present their demands to Fox and the Mexican congress.

Protesters at UCLA held a banner saying ”we are still here, we will continue to be here, we will not surrender.”

Fox announced during the UCLA event that the Mexican congress had just approved a meeting with Marcos

”I hope Marcos will accept our invitation, which I personally sent,” Marcos said.

In keeping with his theme of connecting Mexico and California economically and socially, Fox made a stop Thursday night in Santa Ana to open the Mexico Trade Center in California.

The center is the first facility in the country connecting small businesses from Mexico and California by providing services and information about legal matters, tax issues and cultural difference involved in trade-related matters.

Davis accompanied Fox to the event but was shouted down by protesters when he tried to deliver an opening statement.

The protesters carried signs saying, ”Gov. Davis, I want my driver’s license” – an apparent reference to immigrants who want the right to apply for a driver’s license while seeking residency status.

Davis asked the crowd in Spanish to let him continue and finished his remarks when they quieted down.

Fox told the crowd of several thousand people about growing up in Mexico and sharing toys with less fortunate children.

”Fifty-eight years later, they are still my friends,” Fox said. ”There’s a big difference between them and myself. I had the opportunity to go to school, the opportunity to have a job, the opportunity to make a living.”

Fox hopes the new center will help provide opportunities for Mexicans living in Mexico and in this country.

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