By Michael D. Shear and Randal C. Archibold on Jan. 6, 2015
WASHINGTON — Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, on Tuesday praised the steps President Obama has taken to shield millions of unauthorized immigrants from deportation, describing them as “an act of justice” after meeting with Mr. Obama at the White House.
In his own remarks, Mr. Obama thanked Mr. Peña Nieto for helping to inform Mexicans that the protections included in the executive action on immigration he announced last year would be granted only to those who have been in the United States for years.
“We’re also going to be much more aggressive at the border in ensuring that people come through the system legally,” Mr. Obama said, adding that the “Mexican government’s been very helpful” in making that clear.
Mr. Peña Nieto’s visit to Washington came at a time of increased cooperation between the United States and Mexico. Mr. Obama’s move to regularize the legal status of people who are in the United States illegally, a majority of them Mexicans, has been widely praised in Mexico, as has his effort to normalize relations with Cuba, an effort that Mexico is also making.
At the same time, American law enforcement agencies played major roles in the arrests last year of high-profile drug cartel leaders, including Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo, though Mexican officials tend to play down that cooperation.
“In these recent years, a level of mature and friendly relations has been constructed, first between the presidents and the governments,” Sergio Alcocer, Mexico’s top diplomat for North America, told reporters before Mr. Peña Nieto left Mexico for Washington.
For Mr. Peña Nieto, the visit was a respite from a political and security crisis back home, where economic growth has slowed, the peso is falling in value against the dollar, and changes to allow foreign participation in the oil industry and other moves have yet to put more money in Mexicans’ wallets.
In addition, the past several months have been dominated by a string of security crises, including the abduction and presumed murder of 43 teachers college students in southern Mexico in September and the killing of 22 people in a confrontation with the army in June.
Mr. Peña Nieto was also battered by revelations that his wife and finance minister had been buying homes from a top government contractor.
Shannon K. O’Neil, a Mexico scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said the meeting exemplified the good rapport the presidents and the governments had developed, even if it highlighted only workaday deals, like civil aviation accords and promises for more efficient border crossings, not sweeping agreements.
“It’s necessary, but baby steps,” Ms. O’Neil said.
While Mexicans may have high expectations for their northern neighbor’s role in security, she said the United States would probably be only a bit player in attacking entrenched problems like corruption and the lack of rule of law. “Corruption and rule of law have to come from Mexico,” she said.
Mr. Obama said Tuesday that the fate of the missing 43 students was a tragedy and promised to support the Mexican government in its fight against drug cartels and gun violence.
“Our commitment is to be a friend and supporter of Mexico in its efforts to eliminate the scourge of violence and the drug cartels that are responsible for so much tragedy inside of Mexico,” Mr. Obama said.
Many Mexican commentators have suggested that Mr. Peña Nieto should seek broader help from the United States to address the recent security problems, but his administration has always sought to keep American cooperation in the background. American law enforcement agencies have assisted in the forensic investigation of the missing students case, according to American officials, but Mexican officials have not discussed it.
Before the meeting of the two leaders, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. hosted a meeting of senior officials from both countries in a discussion about ways to strengthen the economic ties between Mexico and the United States.
American and Mexican officials began the dialogue in 2013, during Mr. Peña Nieto’s first year in office. The group met one other time, in 2014, before Mr. Obama’s visit to Mexico City.
White House officials did not announce any broad new economic initiatives with Mexico. But they said they would be adding energy and climate issues to the continuing discussions and deepening regulatory cooperation.
Penny Pritzker, the secretary of commerce, said in an interview that the goal of the discussions was to find ways to improve an economic relationship that is already deeply integrated and growing.
Ms. Pritzker noted that trade between the two countries had grown from about $30 billion a month in 2009 to a high of about $50 billion last October. She said that improvements to infrastructure on both sides of the border in the past year had helped, but that more must be done.
“The point is this is about hitting singles and doubles,” she said. “This is not about some grand new scheme.”
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