By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 15, 2007
MEXICO CITY, Nov. 14 -- Mexican President Felipe Calderón took the unusual step Wednesday of injecting himself into U.S. presidential politics, calling Mexican migrants "thematic hostages" of the race and urging candidates not to use them as a talking point.
Speaking at a conference here, Calderón criticized what he called "the growing harassment" of Mexicans in the United States and said his administration would finance a media campaign to underline immigrant success stories.
Calderón made his remarks one day before his environment minister, Rafael Elvira Quesada, is scheduled to release a report concluding that the U.S.-Mexico border wall is damaging the environment.
Calderóns statement on the U.S. presidential race caught many people here by surprise. Addressing delegates at a conference sponsored by the Mexican government agency that assists migrants, he said: "It is my duty to make a respectful but firm call to the candidates of the various political parties in the United States for them to stop using Mexicans in that country as thematic hostages of their speeches and their strategies."
Calderón has frequently criticized U.S. immigration policy, as do many Mexicans. But it is unusual for a Mexican president to make such a direct comment about U.S. presidential campaign strategies.
Immigration has emerged as a hot-button issue in the 2008 presidential contest, consistently ranking high on the list of voter concerns and figuring prominently in debates. Immigration also tops a list of issues that voters in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses want candidates to address, according to a CBS-New York Times poll released Tuesday. And 44 percent of caucus-goers want illegal immigrants to lose their jobs and leave the country, the poll said.
A poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released two weeks ago found that 65 percent of Republican voters and 50 percent of Democratic voters ranked illegal immigration as a "very important" issue.
Republican candidate Fred Thompson has proposed taking federal grant money from so-called sanctuary cities in the United States that do not report illegal immigrants to the federal government. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) has run television ads saying migrants cross the border "to take our jobs."
The potency of the immigration issue has been highlighted by the furor over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) speaking favorably about a plan to grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants in New York state. Some analysts have said Clinton's recent drop in the polls was caused in part by her comments about the license plan, which was dropped Wednesday by Democratic Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer of New York.
Given the national focus on immigration, it is very unlikely that candidates would heed Calderón's call, Michael Dimock, associate director of the Pew Research Center, said in a telephone interview.
"Good luck," Dimock said of Calderón's plea. "It's a potentially powerful voting issue for a significant segment of the electorate."