Mexican Presidential Hopefuls Vow to Seek Immigration Pact

Backers of former mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador watch the televised presidential debate at Zocalo, Mexico City's main plaza.
Backers of former mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador watch the televised presidential debate at Zocalo, Mexico City's main plaza. (By Eduardo Verdugo -- Associated Pres)
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 7, 2006

MEXICO CITY, June 6 -- Mexico's three major presidential candidates each pledged Tuesday during a nationally televised debate to seek an immigration accord with the United States.

Immigration has grown in importance in the campaign since this spring's massive immigration rallies in U.S. cities and President Bush's decision to send National Guard troops to support U.S. Border Patrol agents.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, candidate of the Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD, who is popular among the poor, said Mexicans have to convince U.S. officials that "nothing can be resolved with walls . . . or with the militarization of the border."

López Obrador, who skipped the first debate and was under pressure to stop his slide in opinion polls with a resounding win Tuesday, is tied in the polls with Felipe Calderón, the candidate from President Vicente Fox's National Action Party, or PAN.

Calderón, a former energy secretary, said he would push for an agreement that would award U.S. legal status to Mexicans who have lived illegally in the United States for "five or six years" -- a far shorter period than has been proposed by some immigration advocates in the United States.

The third major candidate, Roberto Madrazo, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, called Mexico's foreign policy "a disaster zone" and echoed his opponents in saying that Mexico needed to create more jobs to stem the huge flow of illegal migrants northward.

Both López Obrador and Calderón promised to fight for the human rights of Mexicans living illegally in the United States. But López Obrador went one step further, saying he would convert all 45 Mexican consulates in the United States into branches of the Mexican attorney general's office to protect Mexicans . from discrimination. Calderón vowed to seek an accord with Canada and the United States to encourage investment in business development in Mexican regions that lose the most people to illegal migration.

The debate unfurled after a tumultuous day in which gunmen tried to kill the wife of a jailed businessman who had threatened to release potentially damaging corruption tapes just hours before the candidates appeared.

Cecilia Gurza and her three children, who were traveling in a bulletproof vehicle, were not hurt in the early morning attack in Mexico City. Her husband, Carlos Ahumada, was accused in 2004 of bribing top city officials in Mexico City's government when López Obrador was mayor.

Ahumada had said he would release tapes showing payoffs to other allies of López Obrador, a move that political commentators said could damage the former mayor's efforts to portray himself as the anti-corruption candidate. He did not follow through with his threat on Tuesday.

López Obrador and Calderón, the two leading candidates, differ sharply in style and in their approach to governing.

López Obrador is a fiery populist, a favorite of Mexico City's vast underclass, who has promised to lower gas and electricity prices. Calderón is wonkish and an understated campaigner. He has espoused job creation and promised to continue the work of Fox, whose election in 2000 ended the PRI's seven-decade reign.

The two traded barbs during the second half of a debate that had been largely free of the personal attacks that have marked the campaign. López Obrador asserted that Calderón's brother-in-law did not have to pay taxes on a lucrative contract while Calderón was Mexico's energy secretary. Calderón shot back that López Obrador "was not going to win by lying."

The PRI candidate, Madrazo, who is running a distant third in opinion polls, also got in some shots. He called Calderón "inexperienced and incompetent" and described López Obrador as "violent and radical."

López Obrador's temperament has created problems for him during the campaign. He was widely condemned recently when he said Fox should "shut up" about the race.

"Here we have a great respect for the presidency," said Jorge Montaño, who served as Mexico's ambassador to the United States and to the United Nations in the 1990s. "We are not like the United States, where you make fun of the president every night."

While López Obrador's prospects have been declining, Calderón's have been rising on the basis of a dogged, stay-on-message approach.

Their duel -- which almost completely ignores the presence of Madrazo -- has brought Mexico toward what could be one of the closest elections in its history on July 2. The race is so close that some Mexican political forecasters have begun to use a word American voters are all too familiar with: recount.

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