MEXICO CITY -- President Vicente Fox reversed course yesterday and apologized for saying that Mexicans in the United States do the work that blacks won't.
Despite growing criticism that included a stern US response, Fox had repeatedly refused to back away from the comments he made Friday, saying his remark had been misinterpreted.
But in telephone conversations with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, the president said he ''regretted" the statement.
''The president regretted any hurt feelings his statements may have caused," the Foreign Relations Department said in a press statement. ''He expressed the great respect he and his administration has for the African-American community in the United States."
Jackson told Fox that he was sure the president had no racist intent, and suggested the two meet to discuss joint strategies between blacks and immigrant groups in the United States, Fox's spokesman, Ruben Aguilar said.
Fox agreed to set up a visit to Mexico by Jackson, Sharpton and a group of American black leaders.
Despite Fox's latest comment, many Mexicans -- stung by a new US crackdown on illegal immigrants -- didn't see the remark as offensive. Blackface comedy is still considered funny here and many people hand out nicknames based on skin color.
''The president was just telling the truth," said Celedonio Gonzalez, a 35-year-old carpenter who worked illegally in Dallas for six months in 2001. ''Mexicans go to the United States because they have to. Blacks want to earn better wages, and the Mexican -- because he is illegal -- takes what they pay him."
Earlier, Aguilar said Fox's comments were in defense of Mexican migrants as they come under attack by new US immigration measures that include a wall along the Mexico-California border, and were not meant to offend anybody.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the US Embassy in Mexico City had raised the issue with the Mexican government. ''That's a very insensitive and inappropriate way to phrase this and we would hope that [the Mexicans] would clarify the remarks," Boucher said.
Lisa Catanzarite, a sociologist at Washington State University, disputed Fox's assertion. She said there is intense competition for lucrative working-class jobs like construction and that employers usually prefer to hire immigrants who don't know their rights.
''What Vicente Fox called a willingness to work . . . translates into extreme exploitability," she said.
Fox made the comment Friday in Puerto Vallarta, saying: ''There's no doubt that Mexican men and women -- full of dignity, willpower and a capacity for work -- are doing the work that not even blacks want to do in the United States."
The issue reflected Fox's growing frustration with US immigration policy and deteriorating relations between the two nations.
The Mexican government was expected to send a diplomatic letter to the United States yesterday protesting recent measures that include requiring states to verify that people who apply for a driver's license are in the country legally, making it harder for migrants to gain amnesty, and overriding environmental laws to build a barrier along the California border with Mexico.
The measures have been criticized in Mexico, where residents increasingly see the United States as adopting antimigrant policies.