WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama has his top domestic ambition at the head of his agenda as he travels to Mexico on Thursday. To sell his immigration overhaul back home, he needs a growing economy in Mexico and a Mexican president willing to help him secure the border.
Obama was flying to Mexico City Thursday to meet with President Enrique Pena Nieto, eager to promote Mexico's economic success and the neighboring country's place as the second largest export market for U.S. goods and services.
Just before departing, Obama said the trip to Mexico, then on to Costa Rica, will promote his priority to grow the economy and create middle class jobs.
"I'm going to be working to deepen our economic and trade relationships across Latin America — relationships that create jobs and growth here at home, and offer our businesses growing markets where they can sell more American-made goods and services abroad," Obama said.
Mexicans will be hanging on the president's words, but Obama also has in mind an important audience back in the United States.
Though the role played by Latino voters in last year's U.S. presidential election gets much credit for the current momentum for changing immigration laws and providing a path to citizenship for 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally, another reason for the change in attitudes is that stronger border protections and the recession have been disincentives to cross into the U.S. As a result, illegal immigration has declined.
"With Mexico, first and foremost, they are critical to our ability to secure the border," said Ben Rhodes, an Obama deputy national security adviser. "All the immigration plans that have been contemplated put a focus on securing the border as an essential priority and starting point for immigration reform."
Even better than a strong border is an economy that keeps people from fleeing.
"If the Mexican economy is growing, it forestalls the need for people to migrate to the United States to find work," Rhodes added.
Eager to focus on the economy and immigration, the administration is downplaying Pena Nieto's recent steps to end the broad access Mexico gave U.S. security agencies to help fight drug trafficking and organized crime under his predecessor, Felipe Calderon. Still, the changes are likely to be a subject during the two leaders' private talks. Obama said this week he wouldn't judge the new moves until he heard directly from Mexican officials.
Pena Nieto took office in December, and for Obama the trip is an opportunity to take his measure of the Mexican leader early in his tenure.
"It's really important to go there while this new president is forming his own plans and judgments about what he's going to do about the border, about where he's going to be on immigration, about where he is on trade," U.S. Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Thomas Donohue said in an interview.
The chamber long has worked to improve U.S.-Mexico trade, noting that now about 6 million U.S. jobs depend on commerce with Mexico.
Striking the right note on border security is key, Donohue said, because it is a central to winning support in Congress for the rest of the immigration legislation.
"That's what everybody wants to hear, and we have to do that in a way that makes these guys down there feel like we're doing it in conjunction with them and for them, so we can do this thing on immigration well, so we can expand our trade, so we can deal with our political issues as they are trying to deal with theirs," Donohue said.
Still, with 33 million U.S. residents of Mexican origin, Obama's message in Mexico is also bound to resonate in the U.S., where Latinos could increase pressure on Congress to act.
"It helps keep these passions alive as far as an issue to promote for the administration," said Carl Meacham, a former senior Latin America adviser on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
But Meacham, now director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, cautioned that despite some bipartisan support to create a path to citizenship in the immigration bill, there is skepticism in Latin America. "They've been brought to the altar so many times by different American administrations that there's a little bit of a lack of trust," he said.
For Pena Nieto, Obama's visit is a chance for him to showcase his country's economic gains. After suffering along with the U.S. during the recession, its economy is now growing at a better clip than that of the U.S. Per capita income has gone from an annual $7,900 two years ago to $10,146. But Diana Negroponte, a Latin America expert at the Brookings Institution, says corruption remains endemic, human rights are still a problem, and efforts to change and improve the judicial system have been too slow.
"There is concern on our side of the border that greater help needs to be given in order for Mexico to reform its system," she said.
Pena Nieto's changes in the security relationship with the U.S. have prompted some U.S. officials to speculate that the new president might be embracing the policies of his Institutional Revolutionary Party, which long has favored centralized political and bureaucratic control.
Among those watching the new steps is Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who has held up $228 million sought by the Obama administration for Mexico under a security cooperation agreement. Under the agreement, known as the Merida Initiative, Congress has already given Mexico more than $1.9 billion in aid since 2008.
But Leahy, chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the State Department budget, has been a critic of how the money has been used and with the results.
"Congress has been asked for a significant new investment, but it's not clear what the new Mexican government's intensions are," Leahy said in a statement to The Associated Press. "We're in a period of uncertainty until we know enough to be able to reset that part of our relationship. I'm not ready to sign off on more money without a lot more details."