President Obama will leave Thursday for meetings in Mexico and Costa Rica as fragile negotiations continue at home over a sprawling overhaul of federal immigration law, a monumental task that will require him to enlist the support of Latin American officials while making sure that immigration does not dominate the trip.
Obama and new Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto broadly share the goals of normalizing the status of millions of Mexicans living illegally in the United States and creating guest-worker programs for migrants. But there are concerns about the implications for border security and the flow of those who may be seeking to come to the United States in anticipation of a legalization process.
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.”
Peña Nieto is facing pressure from some quarters to take more of a public stand in the immigration debate. He has been willing to be more confrontational with the United States, pulling back on the extraordinary access Mexico gave U.S. authorities in prosecuting the drug war and organized crime.
Jorge Castañeda, who served as foreign minister under former president Vicente Fox, said it would be a mistake for Peña Nieto to stand passively on the sidelines of the U.S. immigration debate.
“There’s no reason in the world why Mexico should not say what it thinks about what is being legislated in the U.S. when it affects us directly,” Castañeda said. “China and Europe don’t hesitate to say what they think about trade. Israel does the same on matters of security. The notion that Mexico shouldn’t talk about immigration is ridiculous.”
Still, many analysts expect Peña Nieto and other Mexican leaders to take a cautious approach.
“I think, politically, the Mexicans have accepted the fact, the political reality, that border security’s the price they have to pay for getting the other changes in the package,” said Ted Piccone, senior fellow and deputy director for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.
Mexican leaders have typically demurred on U.S. immigration policy, calling it an “internal matter.” The difference now is that Mexican migration to the United States has dropped to its lowest level in four decades. That has left Peña Nieto in a position to advocate more forcefully — at least in private — for policy changes that would normalize the status of the estimated 6 million Mexicans living illegally in the United States.
Mexico’s economy is growing faster than the United States’, and Peña Nieto, who took office in December, may argue that his trade-driven agenda and broad-based reform efforts, which boost Mexican prosperity, are the best strategy for reducing illegal immigration.
Many Mexicans question whether all the talk in the United States about immigration will lead to legislation.
“What’s happening here is viewed with a lot of skepticism and confusion in the region,” said Carl Meacham, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “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.”
Miroff reported from Mexico City.
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