The three-day trip is meant to focus on security and, most of all, promoting trade, although immigration will inevitably be discussed, however reluctantly. Peña Nieto will want to avoid the perception that he is commenting on domestic U.S. politics, while Obama will take a cautious approach to avoid disrupting bipartisan talks on Capitol Hill.
The Obama administration’s robust deportation practices probably will be a point of tension in the U.S.-Mexico talks. The policies have resulted in record numbers of Mexicans being expelled by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which sometimes releases them en masse onto the streets of rough border cities where they are vulnerable to kidnapping or recruitment by gangs.
“Unilateral deportation without bilateral communication is straining the capacity of local governments in the border region to protect those returning to Mexican territory,” said Javier Treviño, a Mexican congressman from the northern state of Nuevo Leon and a former deputy foreign minister.
“I doubt Peña Nieto will get into a public conversation about immigration reform, but I would expect he’ll make comments about the protection of human rights for Mexican migrants,” Treviño added.
What’s more, an immigration overhaul would require an even more significant border presence — which is creating anxiety for many on the Mexican side because migrants from other Latin American countries who are unable to enter the United States often remain in Mexico.
“We believe important cooperation with Mexico will help us in our efforts to secure the border,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, said Wednesday. “Then that creates an additional challenge in Mexico as they deal with migrants.”
The number of migrants from Central America who were arrested trying to enter the United States illegally last year nearly doubled, to 99,000, and American officials want Mexico to impose tighter controls.
The Rev. Flor Maria Rigoni, an Italian priest who runs a migrant shelter in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula, said he has seen a crackdown in recent weeks on Central Americans who pass through after crossing over from Guatemala.
“It seems like Mexico wants to show Obama that its southern border is secure,” Rigoni said. “But we have a 970-kilometer boundary with Guatemala, and it’s all jungle.”