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Mexico protests to U.S. in immigration furor

Reuters | May 18, 2005

Mexico formally complained to the United States on Monday in an escalating dispute over immigration that led President Vicente Fox to make remarks last week that were widely condemned as racist.

Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez told reporters that Mexico sent Washington a diplomatic note, a form of official protest between two countries.

Mexico is complaining about tough new U.S. rules on foreigners that make it more difficult for millions of illegal immigrants from Mexico to get driver's licenses.

The controls, passed by Congress as part of a larger legislative package, also allow the extension of a fence on the border between California and Mexico aimed at stopping illegal immigrants.

Differences over immigration came to a head when Fox, frustrated that a proposal by President Bush to ease immigration restrictions had bogged down in Congress, told business people in Texas on Friday that Mexican immigrants "are doing jobs that not even blacks want to do there in the United States."

The remark was condemned in the United States as racist, although criticism in Mexico was more muted. There are few blacks in Mexico and racism toward black people is not a major issue for the public.

"That's a very insensitive and inappropriate way to phrase this, and we would hope that they would clarify the remarks if they have a chance," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters.

Fox's office has tried to contain the damage, saying on the weekend he regretted the racist interpretation and clarifying that the comment was meant to highlight the positive role of Mexican workers in U.S. society.

Fox is scheduled to meet personally with U.S. civil rights activist Jesse Jackson early on Wednesday in Mexico City after Jackson described Fox's comments as having "ominous racial overtones."

"The president said he had never made any racist comment about the Afro-American community, which he has great respect for, and that his words have been badly interpreted," government spokesman Ruben Aguilar told reporters.

Mexico has a small black community on the Pacific coast that is descended from slaves brought by Spanish colonial rulers centuries ago. Mexicans frequently use nicknames for friends and colleagues that would be construed as racially insulting in some other countries.

Fox was backed by Mexico's leading churchman.

"That declaration is not racist at all. That is what happens in the United States, which anyone can confirm, Cardinal Norberto Rivera said. (Additional reporting by Saul Hudson in Washington)

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