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Cordial welcome turns serious in Mexican leader's visit to state
Seattle Times staff reporters
Mexican President Vicente Fox was welcomed to Seattle Wednesday afternoon by a standing ovation at a Westin Hotel ballroom. But even at the tightly scripted forum with members of the Mexican-American community, Fox heard plenty of frustration and criticism of his administration.
While some lauded Mexico's advances in education and health-care access, others on a panel of community leaders and dignitaries called on Fox to head off the threatened militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border. They criticized alleged human-rights violations by Mexican authorities on Central Americans trying to reach the United States through his country.
Roberto Maestas, director of El Centro de la Raza, said some of the immigrants who have made it here must work hard just to survive. Maestas invoked the example of an El Centro employee — a Mexican immigrant — who died in an automobile accident last year, presumably from the exhaustion of working three jobs to make ends meet.
"This example in one way or another is repeated thousands of times across Seattle and the nation in general," he said.
Fox, who entered from the back of the room in a dark suit with light-blue tie, listened carefully, but he did not take any direct questions from an audience of some 500 people, which included Mexican nationals. Many of those in attendance seemed simply pleased to be there.
More coverage of Fox's visit
Mexican President Vicente Fox's packed schedule includes meetings with farmworkers and top executives.
Carlos Jimenez of Grupo Mexico, a group of local Mexican leaders, praised Fox for the accomplishments of his six-year term in office but criticized the problems spawned by Mexico's growing free-market economy.
"The victims of this process are the working class," Jimenez said. Jobs have been lost; huaraches and sombreros, he said, now carry tags that read "Made in China." "With all due respect, your successor will have a great responsibility on his shoulders."
Fox's whirlwind swing through Washington is believed to be the first by a Mexican president. He was invited by Gov. Christine Gregoire, who met the president when he touched down in Yakima earlier in the day.
The two-day visit to Yakima and Seattle comes as the U.S. Senate considers legislation to strengthen border security, authorize new guest-worker programs and give an eventual chance at citizenship to most of the estimated 12 million people already living illegally in the United States.
Fox will sit down with about two dozen local business leaders over breakfast this morning at the Westin Hotel. The guest list includes the governor; Alan Mulally, Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief executive; Bill Ayer, Alaska Airlines chairman and chief executive; and Kevin Johnson, co-president of Microsoft's services and platforms division.
They carried signs that read: "End NAFTA" and "If corporations can cross the border, why can't people?"
The protest was organized by the same groups that drew thousands to Seattle streets for marches and rallies in April and May.
Near the same corner where the demonstrators gathered, another small group protested not only Fox, but the pro-immigrant demonstrators as well. They carried signs that read: "Illegal aliens are criminals."
The main demonstrators focused much of their protests on the Fox administration's treatment of people in the rural Mexican town of San Salvador Atenco, where local and federal police clashed with villagers earlier this month.
In the violent crackdown that followed, security forces arrested more than 200 people, searched houses without warrants, beat people and humiliated women, among other illegal actions, Mexico's National Human Rights Commission said this week. It also said 23 of the women — four of them foreigners — were sexually assaulted during the uprising.
"There were so many human-rights violations," said demonstrator Laura Picasso, a junior at The Evergreen State College, who said she came here from Mexico with her family 10 years ago. "The government is supposed to be protecting our people, yet it sends in the army to attack us."
In extending an invitation to Fox, Gregoire specifically pressed him to visit Eastern Washington, where thousands of Hispanic workers — many of them illegal immigrants — labor in agriculture, planting and harvesting crops and packing and processing food.
Agriculture is the state's top industry. As a result, Hispanics account for up to 90 percent of the population in some farm communities.
In Yakima, Fox toured a 700-acre cherry, apple and pear orchard and an apple-packing warehouse owned by Rene and Carmen Garcia. Their operation, G&G Orchards, is believed to be the only Hispanic-owned apple warehouse in the state.
Rene Garcia said he wanted to press Fox for duty-free apple exports in Mexico, where U.S. shippers pay a 46 percent tariff. Fox said the issue is a complex one, and that Mexican growers fear that eliminating the duty would cost them jobs. Mexico is the nation's top export market for apples.
At the farm, Fox briefly addressed several hundred farmworkers in Spanish.
"The people came to this land with sacrifice, many times risking their lives," he said. "It's clear the purpose is to reach an agreement that can give security, that can give legality, that can give flow to the migrant people. I think we are closer to the end of this route. This is a shared responsibility, the immigration reform."
As Fox's motorcade headed back to Yakima's airport to board his private plane to Seattle, protesters got another opportunity to shout and jeer at the president. Afterward, some said they were sure they saw Fox peering out the window of a green SUV.
Were they right? Gregoire said they were — she pointed the protest out to him.
"I love my country because of our free speech," the governor added while waiting to fly to Seattle. "He shouldn't take anything negative from it. He has many, many friends here."
Following his breakfast meeting this morning, Fox will be escorted to Sea Mar Community Health Center in southwest Seattle. He winds up his visit over lunch with Latino business leaders and Port of Seattle officials.
From Seattle, Fox will head to California to address lawmakers and meet with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Speaking on the eve of a visit from Fox, Schwarzenegger said he would discuss border security with Fox. "I am prepared to commit California National Guard troops in support of Border Patrol operations," Schwarzenegger said. "But it has to be on a temporary basis."
Schwarzenegger said he would tell Fox that his government needs to do more to stop illegal immigration into the U.S.
The Yakima Herald-Republic, Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company