Obama Knocks Trump’s Wall During Timely Visit by Mexican Leader

Obama, Nieto Stress Friendship Between U.S., Mexico
  • Pena Nieto meets Obama at White House day after Trump speech
  • Mexican president has compared GOP pick to Hitler, Mussolini

Hours after Donald Trump accepted the Republican nomination for president with a vow to seal the U.S.-Mexico border, the man he’s seeking to replace welcomed the Mexican president to the White House.

President Barack Obama repeatedly derided Trump’s proposal to build a wall across the southern U.S. border in a news conference Friday with his Mexican counterpart, Enrique Pena Nieto, and instead celebrated what he said was a close, effective relationship between the North American neighbors. Pena Nieto’s visit came the day after Trump raged against illegal immigration in a speech accepting the Republican nomination for president,

“The benefit of a cooperative Mexico, and by the way a Mexico that has a healthy economy, a Mexico that can help us build stability and security in Central America; that’s going to do a lot more to solve any migration crisis or drug trafficking problem than a wall, and it’ll be much more reflective of the kind of relationship we should have with our neighbors,” Obama said.

Pena Nieto last met with Obama less than a month ago, at a regional summit in Canada. The Mexican president has compared Trump to dictators Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, and arrived in Washington just as the U.S. presidential contest between the Republican and Democrat Hillary Clinton is gaining steam. Clinton will accept her party’s nomination next week in Philadelphia.

“Let me start by saying something that is too often overlooked, but bears repeating, especially given some of the heated rhetoric we sometimes hear,” Obama said without mentioning Trump. “The United States values tremendously our enduring partnership with Mexico and our extraordinary ties of family and friendship with the American people.”

‘Great Border Wall’

Trump’s campaign has revolved around pledges to halt illegal immigration and deport millions of undocumented immigrants already in the country, many of them Mexican. Trump kicked off his White House run by calling some Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “killers,” and he accused a federal judge overseeing a lawsuit against his Trump University business of bias because of the judge’s Mexican heritage.

“We are going to build a great border wall to stop illegal immigration, to stop the gangs and the violence, and to stop the drugs from pouring into our communities,” Trump said Thursday during his acceptance speech in Cleveland.

In an interview with CNN that aired this month, Pena Nieto said there’s “no way” Mexico will pay for a border wall. Trump has suggested his administration would block the U.S. share -- by far the largest -- of Mexico’s $25 billion in foreign remittances, equal to about 2 percent of Mexico’s gross domestic product. The inflows prop up the peso, boost returns for investors in local bonds, and fuel spending at retailers such as Wal-Mart de Mexico SAB, cement maker Cemex SAB and bottler Coca-Cola Femsa SAB.

Pena Nieto tempered his remarks at the news conference with Obama, saying the next U.S. president would “find in Mexico and its government a constructive attitude” no matter who is elected.

“It is the American people who have to decide who the next male or female president will be,” he said. “I have expressed absolute respect for this process.”

‘No Coincidence’

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said earlier this week he doubted Obama would raise Trump’s proposed wall in a private meeting with the Mexican president. He declined to elaborate on how the White House selected the date for hosting Pena Nieto.

“It’s no coincidence,” said Christopher Sabatini, a lecturer in Latin American affairs at Columbia University, said of Pena Nieto’s visit. “There are 30 million Americans of Mexican heritage. Mexico has been deeply offended -- deeply offended -- about the way Trump has spoken about their government.”

About a dozen protesters gathered outside the White House during Pena Nieto’s visit, with signs demanding justice for 43 Mexican college students who went missing in Mexico’s southern state of Guerrero in 2014. The Mexican government’s investigation, which concluded that they were killed by a drug gang allied with the mayor and police of a local town, has been criticized by international experts. Another participant held a sign protesting Pena Nieto’s education overhaul.

Pena Nieto’s approval rating has fallen to 29 percent, the lowest of his presidency, amid discontent over the government’s response to corruption, according to a June survey by pollster Buendía & Laredo and the newspaper El Universal.

Pena Nieto and Obama last saw each other at a summit in Ottawa hosted by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. They will meet again in September at a summit on refugees and migrants as part of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

“The reality is that these are two countries that are working together, that have an intense commercial, political and social relationship,” Paulo Carreno, Mexico’s deputy foreign minister for North America, said in a July 14 interview in Mexico City. “There’s a big difference between campaign rhetoric and reality.”

Mexican Voters

Mexicans are invested in the U.S. election outcome at a personal level. About 34 million people in the U.S. -- the equivalent of the entire population of Canada -- trace their origins to Mexico. Thirty-five percent of Mexican adults say they have friends or relatives in the U.S. who they communicate with on a regular basis, according to a November study by the Pew Research Center.

A June poll by agency GEA-ISA in Mexico found that 56 percent of respondents thought Clinton would be positive for the U.S.-Mexico relationship, while just six percent thought the same of Trump. Only 15 percent saw Clinton as a negative, versus 61 percent for Trump.

While such preferences among people outside the U.S. may not mean much for the election, the State Department estimates one million Americans live in Mexico. That may add up to a lot of absentee ballots.

Officially, Mexico’s government says it respects U.S. sovereignty and has no strategy to influence the result of the presidential race. Yet Mexican officials have worked to counteract Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign, mounting an unprecedented effort to convert the country’s permanent residents in the U.S. into citizens, a status that would allow them to vote in U.S. elections. As one example, Mexican diplomats have hosted free workshops on naturalization for U.S. immigrants.

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