A Mexican president in Congress

When it comes to visits to the United States by foreign heads of state, it's easy to see which ones carry the most weight. Mexican President Felipe Calderón not only is being greeted with an official arrival ceremony in Washington, D.C., this week, but he and first lady Margarita Zavala are being honored with a state dinner at the White House. Calderón also will have the distinction of being on the short list of foreign leaders who have the privilege of addressing a joint session of Congress.

In making the announcement, Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi said, "Relations with Mexico are of utmost importance to the United States. President Calderón's address to Congress will provide us with a renewed opportunity to strengthen our bonds of friendship, discuss our shared challenges and embrace common opportunities."

It's pretty much what was said of Vicente Fox when he became the first Mexican president to address a joint session of Congress back in 2001. It was Sept. 6, to be exact. It was a historic moment for U.S.-Mexico relations.

At the top of his agenda was immigration reform and the legalization of millions of undocumented Mexican nationals. He told members of Congress, "As the history of this country shows, migration has always rendered more economic benefits to the United States than the cost it entails." President George W. Bush at the time cautiously embraced the idea of immigration reform while opposing amnesty.

Of course, neither Fox nor his amigo Bush could have imagined at that time that five days later, everything would change, literally.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks showed us how vulnerable we are to being victims of hatred. But another, almost inevitable, consequence is that it knocked the relations between Mexico and the United States off the priority list, and with it the possibility of moving forward with immigration reform.

Suddenly, immigrants, particularly those crossing our southern border, became the enemy in the eyes of some Americans, and a possible threat. Never mind that none of the terrorists from Sept. 11 crossed the border from Mexico.

Nearly nine years have passed since a Mexican president spoke directly to the American people, and once again Mexico is on the radar for the U.S. and so is the need for immigration reform, but not under the best of circumstances. When Calderón visits Washington, there will be some tough issues he'll have to address: The growing violence in his country that has taken more than 22,000 lives since he declared war on the drug cartels and its effect on towns on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. And the new Arizona law whose underlying message is: Get rid of the Mexicans.

Calderón has criticized the law as a violation of human rights that opens the door to "intolerance, hate and discrimination." His government has put out an advisory for Arizona, warning that "it must be assumed that every Mexican citizen may be harassed and questioned without cause at any time."

Ironically, after the Arizona law was approved, Amnesty International criticized Mexico for its own treatment of undocumented immigrants, mainly from Central America.

Calderón faces a tough balancing act during his visit here. Aside from all the pomp and circumstance, he will need to demand respect for his co-nationals in this country and push for immigration reform, while trying to explain why he hasn't created the environment to make them want to stay in their own country. And he also must clarify why, with all of the resources invested in the war against drugs and the accomplishments it has achieved, his government still has not been able to stop the bloodshed that just last month hit an all-time high.

Bienvenido, Presidente Calderón. Good luck -- it's a tough crowd out there.