Washington Secretary of State Colin Powell praised the contribution of Mexican migrant workers to the American economy and said he wants "safe, legal, orderly and dignified" procedures to ensure they receive humane treatment.
Powell spoke Thursday after he and Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft spent two hours conferring on migration and other issues with Mexican Foreign Secretary Jorge Castaneda and Interior Minister Santiago Creel.
The migration issue has been a sore point in cross border ties for years, but all four participants said Thursday's meeting was productive. One goal was to establish principles for reforms both sides say they want.
The meeting was partly aimed at laying the groundwork for an encounter next month in Washington between President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox.
"We want to make sure that we have a humane approach to the solution of the migration challenge," Powell told reporters at the State Department.
"We want to make sure that migration to the United States from Mexico is safe, legal, orderly and dignified."
Whatever reforms are instituted, Powell said they must respect "the enormously valuable role that Mexican immigrants continue to play in helping us in building our nation."
At the same time, he said the administration wants to ensure that the reforms do not disadvantage American workers.
The administration is open to discussions on allowing Mexicans to work legally on a temporary basis in the United States. Similar permission would be granted to Mexicans already working illegally in the United States.
Officials indicated that there was no discussion on the number of Mexicans who might benefit from reforms.
Fox said in late July that all Mexicans working in the United States, estimated at 3 million, should be legalized in recognition of their contribution to the U.S. economy.
Mexican workers, he said, "shouldn't have to walk around like criminals or stay hidden."
Another Mexican concern is the increasing number of would-be migrants who die from exposure while attempting to cross the border or suffer mistreatment once they reach U.S. soil.
Anti-immigrant groups and many members of Congress are opposed to any change beyond allowing some Mexicans to stay as temporary laborers.
Granting legal residency to all Mexican immigrants now living in the United States is "very bad policy," says Sen. Phil Gramm, a Republican from Bush's home state of Texas. "It rewards lawlessness."
Mexico has a strong ally in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which sees Mexican workers as crucial in resolving an anticipated labor shortage, with an estimated 154 million American workers available for 161 million U.S. jobs by 2008.