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North American leaders meeting amid tensions

WASHINGTON

Early in his first term, President Bush proposed easing immigration restrictions and establishing a free trade zone throughout the hemisphere. His first two foreign trips were to Mexico and Canada, emphasizing their importance.

Four years later, both initiatives are unfulfilled, not even on the agenda as Bush meets Wednesday in Texas with Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin.

Instead, the North American leaders will sign a pact pledging to increase border security without hindering the flow of goods or the millions of people that cross the two borders every day. They will agree to more cooperation on energy exploration and on combatting terrorism and drug trafficking. And they will agree to move toward a system of common import duties on goods from China and other exporting nations and blocs.

The three leaders will meet at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and then over lunch at Bush's ranch in nearby Crawford.

They are not expected to propose any fundamental changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement, the landmark 1994 pact that ended tariffs on most goods traded within the three nations.

Bush's earlier vision of extending NAFTA to other democracies in the hemisphere - supported by Mexico and Canada - appears in limbo, in large part because of resistance led by Brazil, South America's largest economy.

"There will be some high rhetoric about the North American community and so forth. But my expectations are low" for the session, said Gary Hufbauer, an economist and trade expert with the Washington-based Institute for International Economics.

"It's not clear to me that any of the three leaders want to commit significant capital to addressing either the current frictions within NAFTA or expanding NAFTA," said Hufbauer, who was a Treasury Department official in both the Ford and Carter administrations.

Bush's hopes for a guest-worker program were dashed by the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, which refocused U.S. attention on securing borders. Bush still advocates liberalizing immigration, but the proposal has generated broad opposition among conservatives, a core Bush constituency.

U.S. relations with neighbors were strained by the Iraq war, which was opposed by both Fox and then-Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien. While all agree ties are on the mend, there have been some recent irritants.

Martin, who took office last year, caught Washington by surprise last month when he rebuffed Bush's offer to include Canada in the U.S. missile defense program. Tensions remain despite attempts by the two leaders to patch up their differences by phone.

The Canadian prime minister is expected to press Bush on the continued mad-cow-disease related closure of the U.S. border to Canadian beef and a long-running dispute over duties on softwood lumber.

Meanwhile, Fox, who cannot seek re-election, bristled at CIA Director Porter Goss' remarks to a Senate committee last week about the potential for instability in Mexico ahead of 2006 elections.

The Mexican president also has complained about militia-type vigilante groups hunting and killing Mexican immigrants along the Arizona border, and about U.S. suggestions that al-Qaida agents may be coming into the United States from Mexico. Fox was expected to raise both topics with Bush.

Fox said he didn't expect any breakthroughs on immigration.

"President Bush has in his hands all the information - all the instruments - to convert immigration initiatives into legislation," Fox told U.S. and Canadian reporters before the visit. "But it's up to him and the U.S. Congress to lead us into orderly, legal migration which is beneficial to all."

Despite generally low expectations, there was no shortage of bold suggestions.

For instance, a U.S.-Canada-Mexico task force urged the leaders to consider a "biometric" North American border pass - based on fingerprints or eye scans - that would allow the 450 million residents of the three countries freer movement by 2010.

The Task Force on the Future of North America also recommended a "marine defense command" to protect North American ports, much like the existing U.S.-Canadian integrated air defense system, Norad.

Task force co-chairman William Weld, a former Massachusetts governor, sought to play down recent flare-ups in tensions - such as Martin's refusal to sign on to the U.S. missile defense plan.

"I wouldn't lose any sleep over the missile defense system," said Weld.

Tom Raum has covered national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1973.