Mexico President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto probably will urge President Barack Obama to overhaul an immigration system that has trapped more than 6 million Mexicans without legal status when the two men meet for the first time at the White House today.
The odds for breaking a decade-long U.S. legislative impasse improved when Obama won a second term Nov. 6 with 71 percent support from Hispanic voters, according to exit polls, pressuring Republicans to either work with him or risk further alienating a growing political force.
About 12 million Mexicans live in the U.S. and more than half lack legal status, according to an April study by the Pew Research Center. While Pena Nieto, 46, has emphasized the need for greater economic growth to make emigration a choice rather than a necessity, he has criticized attempts by states such as Arizona to clamp down on undocumented immigrants, saying the moves are discriminatory and fail to recognize Mexican contributions to the U.S. economy.
Immigration “will undoubtedly be part of the conversation,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, a New York-based business organization, said in a phone interview from Washington. For Pena Nieto, raising the issue would be “pushing on an open door, because he’ll find a very receptive President Obama. There’s going to be very vigorous agreement on this issue.”
The two leaders are also likely to discuss Mexico’s drug war, which has cost more than 57,000 lives since President Felipe Calderon sent the army to take on the cartels after taking office in December 2006, according to a count kept by Mexico City newspaper Milenio.
They may find more in common over immigration. Obama told a news conference last week he’s “very confident” accords can be achieved and that action may begin “very soon” after his inauguration in January.
An immigration law should be similar to “previous efforts” and provide a pathway to legal status for law-abiding undocumented immigrants, Obama said at a Nov. 14 news conference. Pena Nieto, who takes office Dec. 1, has made it clear that his nation would support such a move.
“Some analysts detect new momentum for comprehensive immigration reform since the U.S. presidential election,” Pena Nieto wrote in a column published by the Washington Post on Nov. 23. “All Mexicans would welcome such a development.”
Pena Nieto called Obama on Nov. 14 to congratulate him on his re-election, and they pledged to work together on an agenda that they will develop during today’s meeting, according to an e-mailed statement from Pena Nieto’s transition team.
Obama thinks immigration reform is “important not just for specific communities that would be affected by it, but for the American economy,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters yesterday. “We’ll be pressing for action on immigration reform. And to the extent that might come up in the president’s meeting with the president-elect, that would be his message.”
Pena Nieto will also meet with leaders from the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate on Capitol Hill before moving on to Ottawa, where he’ll meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Canadian lawmakers.
Mexicans are the largest immigrant group in the U.S., while the money they send home is Mexico’s largest source of foreign income after automobile and oil exports, the nation’s mining chamber said in a March report. Remittances to the $1.16 trillion economy totaled $22.8 billion last year.
The two leaders also probably will discuss economic cooperation. Mexico is the biggest buyer of U.S. goods sold abroad after Canada, and the U.S. in turn buys 80 percent of Mexico’s exports. Mexico is joining negotiations for a Trans- Pacific Partnership that would include its partners in the North American Free Trade Agreement, which took effect in 1994, as well as eight nations in Latin America and Asia.
On the domestic front, Pena Nieto has pledged to boost tax collection and open the energy industry to more private investment to help spur an economy that has grown 1.9 percent annually since Calderon took office in 2006, about half the pace of Brazil. He also plans to put the Interior Ministry in charge of security and fold the Public Security Ministry into it to streamline the nation’s fight against crime.
While increased U.S. border patrols and deportations, as well as a weakened U.S. job and housing construction market, helped cut net migration to zero in recent years, it could pick up again should the U.S. recovery gather momentum, according to the Washington-based Pew’s Hispanic Center, a research organization that seeks to improve public understanding of the Hispanic population in the U.S.
In June, the Obama administration announced plans to stop deporting some undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children and make them eligible for work permits. The action bypassed Congress, where legislation known as the Dream Act designed to give a path to legal status for younger undocumented immigrants has been stalled.
Previous attempts by Mexico to pressure the U.S. on immigration have met with little success. On Sept. 6, 2001, then Mexican President Vicente Fox went to Washington and addressed a joint meeting of Congress. He urged U.S. lawmakers to trust Mexico more and allow easier border crossings.
Five days later, hijackers crashed planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, spurring concern about weakness in the nation’s borders and immigration policy that led to a decade-long tightening.
Pena Nieto may take a softer approach than Fox, whose show of force failed to win over Congress and highlighted that many Americans see immigration policy as a domestic issue, said Shannon O’Neil, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Moreover, the border clampdown may have had unintended consequences in the case of Mexico, said Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. More Mexicans who come to the U.S. to work on farms in the summer now stay on rather than head south when colder weather arrives, he said. The tighter regulations have also spurred more immigrants to bring the rest of the family across the border rather than endure years of separation.
“Families have been broken apart,” Wood said in a telephone interview. “You see single-parent families here in Mexico where the contact with the father is a remittance check and a Skype call. It can be a perverse incentive, because in fact you cause the migration of entire families.”
More than anything the meeting may serve as an opportunity for aides on each side to get to know their counterparts as Pena Nieto’s inauguration returns his Institutional Revolutionary Party to power after 12 years out of office, O’Neil said. While Pena Nieto and Obama will meet one on one, there will also be a session that includes advisers such as Luis Videgaray and Miguel Osorio Chong, the heads of the Mexican transition team, and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
“This is hopefully the start of a partnership between the two to push forward on a bilateral agenda,” O’Neil said in a telephone interview. “It’s really kicking off ‘We’re going to be working together for the next four years.’”