President Barack Obama won the strong support of Mexico’s new president Thursday to control the flow of migrants and strengthen border security, measures that may give momentum to a pending overhaul of U.S. immigration laws before Congress.
Obama and his Mexican counterpart, Enrique Pena Nieto, set a common goal of making North America “the most dynamic and competitive region in the world,” and portrayed controls on migration as vital for sustained joint economic growth.
“Our success is shared,” Obama said at a joint press conference with Pena Nieto hours after he set off on a three-day trip that also will take him to Costa Rica Friday. “When one of us prospers, both of us prosper,” Obama said.
On other issues, Obama pledged to fight on for gun control legislation despite a defeat in Congress last month and said he is “comfortable” with a decision by the Food and Drug Administration to allow 15-year-old girls to obtain emergency contraception over the counter. On Syria, he said his administration would “look at all options,” including providing lethal aid to the opposition, with the goal that “every step we take advances the day when (Syrian President Bashar) Assad is gone.”
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And in a move to bolster Central American nations embattled by heavily armed drug gangs, Mexico and the United States also agreed to harness some programs on issues such as economic growth, disaster management, and governance and rule of law in the region.
Meeting in the ornate National Palace, Obama and Pena Nieto said they had focused heavily on economic and trade issues in afternoon talks.
Matters of public security and cooperation in fighting organized crime, which dominated U.S.-Mexico relations for the past half decade, took a secondary role at the behest of Pena Nieto, who since coming to office five months ago has vowed a different approach on security issues even as he capitalizes on a new image of his nation as a rising economic power.
The two nations agreed to hold regular high-level economic talks. Vice President Joe Biden will lead the U.S. side in the first round later this year, while the Mexican side will contain all Cabinet-level secretaries involved in trade, finance and development.
Pena Nieto emphasized that the vigor of the economy of Mexico, which is the No. 2 market for U.S. exports after Canada, has a direct bearing on U.S. workers.
“When Mexico has greater economic growth and the capacity to export more, it has an impact on the development of the United States,” he said.
Trade between the two countries totals about $1.4 billion a day, directly or indirectly supporting six million jobs in the U.S.
Pena Nieto said his government would work with U.S. authorities to strengthen security along the 1,960-mile border.
“We have the aim of building more secure borders that facilitate and ease the transit both of persons and goods,” Pena Nieto said.
“Our shared border,” Obama added, “is more secure than it’s been in years.”
Obama and Pena Nieto met later Thursday at Los Pinos, the Mexican version of the White House, for a working dinner.
Pena Nieto, who took office five months ago and brought the once monolithic Institutional Revolutionary Party back to power after 12 years, has voiced eagerness to shift ties with the United States away from an overwhelming emphasis on fighting crime.
Capturing the changed mood in the country, former Mexican ambassador to Washington Arturo Sarukhan tweeted that Obama’s visit “will help (the) narrative of Mexico as a big economy with a security challenge instead of a big security challenge with an economy.”
Yet the return of the PRI, as the ruling party is called here, has caused some unease in Washington as Mexico has reshuffled its public security apparatus and ended a practice of allowing U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies to interact directly with their Mexican counterparts. Now, those U.S. agencies must go through a single gatekeeper, the powerful Interior Secretariat.
“When he arrived in power, Enrique Pena Nieto took away the ‘all access’ badge. The United States misses the era of (former President Felipe) Calderon,” Carlos Loret de Mola, a prominent newspaper columnist, wrote Thursday in El Universal.
White House officials downplayed frictions over security, saying it is natural that Pena Nieto would want to evaluate how U.S. cooperation is implemented.
Obama said he expected “strong cooperation” with Mexico on security matters, and that a reorientation by Pena Nieto’s government toward reducing violence affecting Mexicans is one that he supports.
But Obama warned against letting security matters overshadow other aspects “of the largest and most dynamic relationship of any two countries on Earth.” He hailed Pena Nieto for launching sweeping reforms in education, telecommunications and other areas.
“He tackling big issues, and that’s what the times demand,” Obama said.