MEXICO CITY Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. sweetened the deal for his Utah-Mexico "Alliance for Prosperity" Wednesday, telling Mexican President Vicente Fox and other officials here that he'll take on the immigration issue with the help of America's Western governors.
The governor made the pledge during a closed-door, 40-minute meeting with the Mexican leader, where he pitched his plan to boost economic development and tourism between Utah and Mexico, as well as create new education and cultural exchanges.
While Fox and the other leaders Huntsman met with about the plan were receptive, nothing's in writing yet. Huntsman had hoped the Mexican president would travel to Utah this fall to sign an agreement, but officials told him Wednesday that visit may not happen until next year if at all.
Still, the governor, a former diplomat, was upbeat about the prospects for a formal relationship with Mexico as he wound up his first visit to a foreign country since taking office in January. He was scheduled to return to Salt Lake City early this afternoon.
"We're going to work toward bringing this plan to fruition whether he visits or not," Huntsman said. "That would be a capstone of sorts to this alliance, but it isn't critical to its success."
The Mexican foreign ministry is committed to drafting a paper about the scope of the alliance, and the governor said he will begin putting together a group of government and community leaders to do the same in Utah.
As for immigration, Huntsman said he'll work through the Western Governors Association to search for a solution. That could involve organizing a task force, the governor said, that would consider a variety of proposals to speed up the process by which immigrants can become U.S. citizens.
"That just came out of discussions with senior officials," Huntsman said of his decision to tackle the issue. "I think there's a serious need to reinvigorate the whole discussion on immigration. It's falling victim to politics here in Mexico and maybe to some level of indifference at home. I think it's one of the most critical issues of our time and requires a good public policy solution."
He said the discussion of immigration in the United States is becoming "more and more shrill over time, focused on the rhetoric rather than the fix." The governor, who supported Utah's controversial switch to driving privilege cards that cannot be used for identification for undocumented workers, said he did not have a specific solution in mind yet.
The idea of getting governors involved was well received by Fox and other officials, including presidential candidate and former interior secretary Santiago Creel, Huntsman said. "I got a level of receptivity that suggested to me there does need to be some continuity on this issue. I think governors provide a good source. We generally don't play politics on these issues. We try to get things done."
Immigration, he said, came up repeatedly throughout his four-day visit. "I don't think we had a conversation where it didn't come up in some form or fashion." Creel, who belongs to the same political party as Fox, talked of little else during the hour and a half he spent with Huntsman over breakfast Wednesday.
The governor said Mexico's undersecretary for North America, Geronimo Gutierrez, told him the country is not looking for blanket amnesty but a "workable solution going forward to better identify those who are crossing the border" for employment.
Gutierrez welcomed the governor's proposal to bring together Western governors on the immigration issue. Governors are "in the trenches," he said, and their efforts would be relevant even if it is Congress that ultimately sets the U.S. immigration policy.
"Migration is a great opportunity for both countries, if we're able to establish a mechanism that allows for legal, safe borders and secure migration. That will help us take advantage of the fact that we have complementary labor markets," Gutierrez said.
He also praised the proposed alliance as "a creative way to foster relations between a state and a country" and said he will bring together federal and state officials, including governors in Mexico, to participate.
Fox, who greeted the governor warmly and even put his arm around him for a photograph, was ready to do business. Huntsman said he told the president Mexico would be the most important of the four countries he hopes to form alliances with, a list that also includes Canada, India and China.
The Mexican president was interested in the two upcoming trade missions Huntsman is planning to take to Mexico, focused on bioscience and manufacturing. Fox noted that targeting industries for trade would ensure North America stays competitive, Huntsman said.
"He clearly gave his endorsement to this alliance," the governor said.
And Fox thanked the Utah delegation for "creating a workable compromise that allowed continued mobility in our state" through the driving privilege cards, Huntsman said.
The governor also met with the Mexican media Wednesday, alongside Gutierrez, the foreign undersecretary. Many questions from the large number of Mexican reporters dealt with national issues here, including how the government is dealing with immigration problems faced by Mexicans in the United States.
Huntsman, who used the press conference to announce the alliance, said, "We all need to pull together as nation-states." He said there is more that governors, especially those in the West, can do about immigration. "We in states have to live in the real world. We do things like work on the mobility of the work force."
He'll get an opportunity to bring up his plans to deal with immigration sooner rather than later. Huntsman is headed next to Des Moines, Iowa, for the annual meeting of the National Governors Association that begins Friday.
The governor's Mexico trip was dubbed a success by Consul General of Mexico for Utah Salvador Jimenez, who sat in on a number of Huntsman's meetings, including with Fox at the president's official residence, Los Pinos."I think this has been a great visit. I couldn't be more happy," Jimenez said. "There is no doubt for us he really wants to be close to Mexico."