McCain guardedly optimistic on immigration reform

Sen. John McCain said Friday that a deal on immigration reform could be ready by the end of March, but many details remain to be worked out.

MEXICO CITY — Sen. John McCain said Friday that he is optimistic about producing an immigration overhaul that includes a path to legalization for illegal immigrants, but added that significant disagreement remains between President Obama and the bipartisan group of lawmakers drafting a bill.

McCain told reporters after meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto that many details must be worked out between Obama and senators trying to produce legislation.

Asked about the prospects for reaching a deal, he said: "I am guardedly optimistic that we could by the end of the next month. There's still a number of agreements that need to be made before I can assure you that we will have a resolution."

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McCain said he envisions immigration legislation including a way for illegal migrants to obtain legal status; a process for agricultural and low-skilled laborers to go to work in the United States; a provision for highly educated workers to remain in the U.S.; better identification cards for migrants; punishment for businesses that hire illegal migrants; greater use of advanced technology to prevent illicit border crossings, and a special path for migrants brought to the U.S. as children.

"On some of those we have specific agreement, in other areas we agree in principle, but we have not resolved the details," he said. "We are making progress, but we are still not at a point where we can say we will succeed."

McCain also said that former Sen. Chuck Hagel had been weakened by his battle to be confirmed as defense secretary, but McCain said he and Senate colleagues could work with Hagel at the Pentagon. Hagel is expected to be confirmed Tuesday after fierce attacks from fellow Republicans including McCain.

"I think he will have been weakened, but having said that, the job that he has is too important," McCain said. "I know that I and my other colleagues, if he's confirmed, and he very likely will be, will do everything we can to work with him."

Turning to Mexico, McCain said Peña Nieto had reassured him that Mexico would continue to battle drug cartels while reassessing the country's law-enforcement strategy.

The Mexican administration that took office Dec. 1 has, at least in its public rhetoric, emphasized social programs and economic growth as the answer to drug crime, a change from the previous government's focus on a militarized offensive against cartels. That has provoked concern in Washington about a reduction in anti-drug cooperation with Mexico.

"I have no doubt about his commitment," McCain said of Peña Nieto. "I think he feels that policies and practices of the previous administration need to be examined."

McCain said the Mexican president had emphasized the need to reinforce Mexico's southern border with Guatemala, a new emphasis in a relationship that has focused heavily on the U.S.-Mexican border.

The Mexican government said Peña Nieto "emphasized the necessity and the benefits of diversifying the agenda and the dialogue between Mexico and the United States," to focus on economic issues including the automotive industry and educational, scientific and technological cooperation.

Peña Nieto's government is in the midst of an international and domestic public relations campaign to undercut Mexico's association with drug crime and promote its relatively strong economic growth, driven partly by foreign investment in manufacturing plants here.

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