Obama to pitch immigration overhaul in Mexico

Obama to pitch immigration overhaul in Mexico

(AP) Obama to pitch immigration overhaul in Mexico
By JIM KUHNHENN
Associated Press
WASHINGTON
President Barack Obama has his domestic ambition at the top of his travel 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 to fly to Mexico City on 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. 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.

Even better than a strong border is an economy that keeps people from fleeing.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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