at the White House-For a White House so understated in its early months that it would not have the Marine Band play "Hail to the Chief," the pomp and pageantry welcoming last week's visit of Mexican President Vicente Fox, including a 21-gun salute, sent a bold message: In foreign policy, Mexico is the United States' most important relationship, and in politics, Latinos are the GOP's most sought-after group of voters. The Fox visit marked the leaders' fifth meeting in less than eight months, including the president's first trip abroad and his first formal welcoming of a head of state. With the Cold War a distant memory and hot spots like the Middle East deemphasized, Mr. Bush said the meetings recognized "that the United States has no more important relationship in the world than the one we have with Mexico." The last century, he said, was often called the American Century, but with an eye on building trade and democracy in the Western Hemisphere, the next century could become known as a "Century of the Americas." The Fox visit also highlighted another Bush emphasis: GOP/Latino outreach. The White House has just unveiled a more sophisticated website, complete with policy planks and biographies translated into Spanish. The president's weekly radio address is offered now in Spanish. Every cabinet department has a Spanish-language news component. The secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Mel Martinez, and the White House's top lawyer, Alberto Gonzales, are Hispanic. The Republican National Committee website also has a Spanish section, as well as a Spanish emphasis in RNC Chairman Jim Gilmore's new Team Leader program. At the White House, where Presidents Bush and Fox stood on a South Lawn stage decked out in red, white, and blue bunting and surrounded by flags from the United States, Mexico, and all 50 states, the Mexican president warmly reciprocated Mr. Bush's wishes for a new relationship of unprecedented closeness. But he caught White House spinners off guard when he declared "we must and can reach an agreement" on illegal immigration by the end of 2001; spokesman Ari Fleischer could say only that he wasn't sure what Mr. Fox meant and that he hoped clear understanding would flow from the ensuing days of meetings. Both presidents have placed immigration issues at the top of their mutual agenda, in part because of politics. Mr. Fox used support from Mexican-Americans-he campaigned and raised money in American cities-to break the 70-year one-party stranglehold of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. Mr. Bush as governor of Texas surprised pundits by gaining new levels of support among Hispanics. Whether the president's attempts to liberalize immigration will ultimately help or hurt him politically is a vibrant topic of debate in Republican circles, but he is trying to make the GOP pro-immigrant. Pat Buchanan's primary challenge to his father in 1992 is long forgotten, and Democrats are clearly scared of potential Hispanic crossover, responding to the Fox visit by airing TV ads on Spanish-language TV outlets: Their commercials featured pictures of retiring Sens. Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond under the heading "ANTI-IMIGRANTE." Michael Barone, author of the new book The New Americans: How the Melting Pot Can Work Again, says pro-immigration politics by Republicans isn't new. He noted that Mr. Bush and his brother Jeb, now governor of Florida, along with New York Gov. George Pataki, opposed Gov. Pete Wilson's promotion of Proposition 187 in California in 1994 to deny public services to illegal aliens. Four years later, Gov. Bush drew nearly half of the Hispanic vote in Texas, while Dan Lungren lost badly in his attempt to hold the Wilson seat in California. "You've had individual senators and governors stand out on this, but none of them have the bully pulpit and power as a party leader that a president has," said Mr. Barone. The Bush influence is evident. Sharon Castillo, a deputy director of communications at the RNC, says party leaders are confident that Hispanics who learn more about GOP stands on major issues will realize their values have a lot in common with Republican values. "We know that 89 percent of Hispanics support the Bush educational plan, 62 percent agree with Social Security reform, and 60 percent agree with the tax cut," she said. "Mom and Dad may have been Democrats, but they are learning that Republicans are empowering our community to reach American goals." While President Bush's command of the party's leadership has a major impact on the public-relations message, his Republican colleagues in Congress are too divided to hand him any quick legislative victories. Opponents of immigration hail Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), who has authored a bill calling for a five-year moratorium on immigration into the United States (with the exception of family reunifications, which could number about 300,000 people a year). That's a sharp drop from current legal immigration levels of about 1.25 million a year. Rep. Tancredo is not optimistic about either getting the House to debate his bill or what he sees as the current immigration trend. "We are heading toward a nation without a southern border. Let's just say it. Commercial interests are so strong for low-skilled, low-wage workers, we're not going to fool around with issues like sovereignty and loyalty." Mr. Tancredo is happy that White House trial balloons floating the idea of a new amnesty for illegal aliens "landed with a resounding thud," but he worries that issues like Mexico's recent policy allowing dual citizenship for Mexicans living in America aren't being discussed here: "If this nation decides it should abolish its borders, it should be an act of Congress, signed by the president. It shouldn't happen in the way it's been happening." It's much more likely that Congress will be considering an expansion of guest-worker visas. They're known as "H visas"-the H-1B for skilled immigrants, the H-2A for unskilled agricultural workers, and the H-2B for unskilled nonagricultural workers. Mexicans make up the vast majority of the roughly 75,000 H-2 (A and B) visas, but millions more illegal Mexicans are working across the United States. Some politicians in both parties are warming to the idea of "earned legalization" or "earned adjustment," which would grant individual amnesty to illegal immigrants who displayed consistent work and no criminal behavior, during a term as short as three years. President Bush's hopes for a new guest-worker bill in the House of Representatives rest on Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah), who has many friends in common with Bush strategist Karl Rove (who lived in Utah and went to school there) and stays in frequent contact with White House immigration specialist Diana Schacht (who worked on the House Judiciary Committee with Mr. Cannon). He says his family history-a grandfather who owned a farm in Colombia, a wife whose father owned one of the first maquiladoras in Mexico (foreign-owned factories at which imported parts are assembled by workers into products for export), and his own experience as a Mormon missionary in Guatemala-underlines why he's "much more aggressively pro-immigrant in adjusting and improving our laws" than some of his fellow Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee. While they stressed their admiration for Mr. Bush's "visionary leadership" on immigration, Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner and immigration subcommittee chairman George Gekas oppose any rapid, major changes in immigration laws. "These proposals are seriously flawed-if not dead on arrival-without first enacting a comprehensive reform of the Immigration and Naturalization Service," they declared in a joint statement. The committee will hold hearings this fall on performance problems with the INS, especially its 4.5 million applications for temporary and permanent citizenship, which Mr. Sensenbrenner charges is the largest pending amount in the agency's nearly 50-year history, and nine times higher than the last time Congress considered amnesty laws in 1986. Mr. Cannon said, "I suspect any bill that's going to come out will be a consensus bill when I introduce it. Whether we adapt that bill to the Bush principles, we'll have to see." Many issues will need to be hashed out with more skeptical Republicans, including whether guest workers are required to leave, and what kind of wages employers will be required to pay them. To address complaints of unfairness-that applicants who obey the law are punished by an earned amnesty program-Mr. Cannon suggests there ought to be some sort of financial penalty involved, with a stiff payment like $10,000 for going around the legal application process. "We've heard of Chinese immigrants who'd gladly pay $20,000 for the privilege of staying here," he said. But if these sorts of fees or fines would help sooth Republicans, they would also clearly rile Mexican-American lobbying groups and spur Democratic opposition. White House aides insist that the president's focus on Mexico reflects passionate personal beliefs ingrained during a lifetime of living and working with Hispanics in Texas. But immigration issues, like decisions on stem cells and cloning, go beyond the life of an individual to influence powerfully the life of a nation. The vision of the future held by anti-immigration Republicans contends that an ingrafting of millions of Mexicans will nudge America to the left. Pro-immigration forces, though, suggest that immigrants committed to family and work will help to save America from cultural decay. Such radically different portraits of the future guarantee, at least on this issue, a rancorous present of pomp and acrimony.