Mexican President Vicente Fox on Tuesday came to Arizona with a promise to do everything possible to keep his countrymen at home by offering better economic opportunities.
A small army of Arizona business leaders and politicians, led by Gov. Janet Napolitano, offered their support during history’s first visit of a sitting Mexican president to Arizona.
As Fox winged through a bright morning sky toward Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, gunfire crackled along Interstate 10 below — gunfire that left four people dead and punctuated what many saw as the chief topic of Fox’s visit: Illegal immigration. Authorities said Tuesday’s carnage was related to immigrant-smuggling operations. The Valley has seen an upswing in incidents of smuggling turning violent this year.
Napolitano told reporters during a news conference with Fox at the Arizona Biltmore resort in Phoenix that the shooting "does not at all dissuade me" from supporting immigration reform.
Immigration bubbled to the surface throughout the day as Fox and Napolitano met with each other and with Arizona political and business leaders at the Biltmore. Fox also brought along a large contingent of Mexican politicians and businessmen who huddled with their Arizona counterparts, looking for ways to bolster trade, tourism and communication across the border.
But Fox said Mexico is not waiting for American capital to flow south before working to improve its standard of living.
"We are concentrating most of our budget . . . on investing in people," he said. For example, he said, the Mexican government is granting a million scholarships this year for promising university and technical students.
"This scholarship program has to do with retaining our talent and our people in Mexico" he said. That’s a million fewer potential illegal immigrants or unemployed people, he said.
Fox also said Mexico is learning the ways of democracy and vigorously fighting crime — efforts he hopes will attract investment from Arizona.
Speaking to a luncheon for Arizona business leaders, however, Napolitano said there is an even more compelling reason for cross-border economic development than curbing the immigration problem.
"This visit comes at a time when Arizona and Mexico are approaching a critical economic crossroads," she said. "The United States and Arizona are both losing jobs to offshore locations. Likewise, Mexico lost 250,000 manufacturing jobs just to China last year."
She called for the United States and Mexico to develop a joint strategy for competing globally. She urged quick development of the Canamex north-south highway and rail system to move goods and people under the North American Free Trade Agreement, and also pushed a high-tech "cyberport" at Nogales to facilitate trade and transit.
Security concerns cannot be allowed to stifle commerce, she said.
"If trade does not flow, we are simply replacing physical insecurity with economic insecurity," Napolitano said.
Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who represents portions of the East Valley, was the only member of the Arizona congressional delegation at the Biltmore meetings. He is co-sponsor of legislation to create a "guest worker" program as one means of mitigating illegal immigration.
It would allow Mexicans to apply for specific jobs north of the border for specific periods of time. Another provision would allow some illegal immigrants already in this country to remain and work under certain conditions.
Opponents of such a law have criticized Fox’s visit and organized protests Tuesday.
However, momentum for the idea is building, Flake said, thanks to support from California G ov.- elect Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"He’s said he’s going to push it hard," Flake said.
Tighter border control, Flake said, has only resulted in illegal immigrants staying longer and in many cases bringing their families. A guest worker program would allow them to go home when their visas expire. Further, he said, a guest worker program would allow authorities to concentrate on true security issues along the border instead of spending billions of dollars a year nabbing people who only want to work in the United States.
Mesa Mayor Keno Hawker participated in the political meetings and also stressed the need for guest worker legislation. Mesa and other cities "live with some of the shortcomings of not having a program that makes sense," Hawker said. "There’s got to be a better way."
Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, and America West Airlines CEO Doug Parker shared the head table and the speaker’s stand during the business luncheon with Fox and Napolitano.
"The timing could not be better," Crow said of Tuesday’s summit, because Arizona and Mexico need to share in a regional, knowledge-driven economy that can compete globally.
Parker echoed that theme.
"We need to seize the moment," he said. "There is tremendous potential for commercial growth between our two countries. World competition will not stand by idly while we debate issues." Arizona businesses, he said, are poised to invest more deeply in Mexico as political problems are solved.
Fox arrived a few minutes ahead of schedule on a cool, breezy morning, and welcoming ceremonies were so brief he did not linger for a song by several dozen junior high school-age students from the Herrera School for Fine Arts in Phoenix.
During her welcoming remarks, and at least once later in the day, Napolitano quoted former Arizona Gov. Paul Fannin as saying, "God made Arizona and Mexico neighbors. Let us be good neighbors."
"I think today is a step in that direction," she said.
Fox also is scheduled to visit Texas and New Mexico this week.