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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News
Mexican President Vicente Fox, with his wife, Marta Sahagun de Fox, watches dancers from Midvale Elementary School at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center on Tuesday.

Mexican President Vicente Fox's first chance to address Utahns Tuesday during his brief visit to the state was memorable for what he didn't talk about — immigration.

"Everybody would have liked to have heard about it. But I think that's kind of an 800-pound gorilla," said Sen. Karen Hale, D-Salt Lake, after Fox's first speech in Utah to some 500 attending an invitation-only luncheon for the Mexican president at the Little America Hotel.

Instead, Fox told the audience of local dignitaries in English about his country's strong democracy and economy. His statistic-filled, nearly 20-minute speech often sounded like a sales pitch for investing in Mexico.

The Mexican president also acknowledged the economic, educational and cultural alliance between Mexico and Utah forged by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. The governor traveled to Mexico City last July to win Fox's approval for the alliance.

Now called the Utah-Mexico "Project for Prosperity," the alliance has helped establish a "very strong tie," Fox said. "Mexico and Utah share a strategic vision," he said, expressing the hope that the relationship will be "increasingly productive."

Fox arrived midday Tuesday and is spending about 24 hours in Utah, the start of a five-day swing through the western United States that also includes stops in Washington and California.

His first-ever visit to Utah began on the eve of a vote in Washington, D.C., on a sweeping immigration bill that would offer the possibility of citizenship for some of the millions of undocumented workers in the United States, many of whom are from Mexico.

Late Tuesday afternoon, Fox went to the Utah Cultural Celebration Center in West Valley City to meet with about 600 members of the Mexican-American community where he did talk about immigration, including the need for reform.

The Mexican president's earlier speech to business, political and civic leaders "shed some light of the economics of the situation, but it was silent on many of the challenges we're facing as a result of it," Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said, adding that economic "partners should be able to address those challenges openly."

Others in the audience, though, said Fox was right to focus on his country's financial situation rather than delve into the controversy surrounding immigration — especially to a largely business-oriented audience.

Immigration "is a different discussion. I mean it's certainly an important one, but it's a different discussion point," said Chris Roybal, the governor's senior adviser for economic development.

Matching Utah businesses with Mexican buyers "doesn't seem to have a lot of crossover to border issues," Roybal said. "It's certainly a question for discussion, but clearly his message today was around this economic alliance we've created."

Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said he would have been surprised if Fox had mentioned immigration during his speech "because it's an explosive issue right now."

The speech, Jowers said, was "a chance for him to have the message of a statesman and just focus on positive things." Besides, he said, immigration is a national, not a state issue and "Utah is just a bit player in that debate."

The chief executive officer of Bustos Media, a California-based company that owns several Spanish-language broadcast outlets in Utah, said he was pleased that Fox did not bring up immigration in that setting.

"People have to stop talking about all of the divisiveness," Amador Bustos said. "Let's look at what we have in common, not this single problem. Fear is really at the root of a lot of the immigration debate. There is no reason for it."

Following the luncheon speech, Fox held closed-door meetings with a number of Mexican-American business leaders as well as with a delegation from the University of Utah that included U. President Michael Young.

Young said the Mexican leader was surprising. "He was more substantive than I'd anticipated and less ceremonial," Young said. "It was interesting. We talked quite a bit about the broad relationship between Mexico and Utah."

The U. president said Fox was specifically interested in ways to expand training for nurses and other health-care professionals to meet the increasing needs of Mexico as well as other countries. The U. nursing school already has an exchange program with Mexico, Young said.

Fox ended the day at a state dinner at the Governor's Mansion, where the International Children's Choir performed Latin American folk songs. About 60 guests attended the formal event featuring foods from Utah, including wild asparagus harvested in Springville.

Fox was joined at the governor's table by President James E. Faust, second counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Other guests included Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon.

On Wednesday, Fox is scheduled to have breakfast at the west-side warehouse of a Mexican food company owned by an immigrant before meeting with leaders of the LDS Church and the governor.

Fox will also deliver an address to a special joint session of the Utah Legislature before leaving Utah. He canceled a press conference scheduled at the close of his visit and has said he will not take questions from the media.

Dozens of Mexican journalists accompanied Fox on this trip. In addition to the local English- and Spanish-language newspapers and television stations, reporters from CNN, the Los Angeles Times and other national media outlets are covering the visit.

Fox's visit attracted protesters, including about 150 people associated with the Utah Minutemen who waved signs outside the Governor's Mansion during the state dinner. Fox did not see the group because he was brought to the event through a back entrance.

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