Obama Talks Trade, Security, and Immigration on Trip to Mexico, Latin America

President Barack Obama arrived in Mexico City to shore up relations with the U.S.’s southern neighbor. Judy Woodruff talks with Shannon O’Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Brookings Institution’s Diana Negroponte about shared concerns between Mexico and the United States over trade and border issues.

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    President Obama arrived in Mexico City this afternoon to shore up the U.S. relationship with its southern neighbor and second largest export market.

    Immigration and security are also on the agenda, as the president begins his three-day Latin American trip. Shortly after Air Force One touched down in Mexico City this afternoon, Mr. Obama joined Mexico's new president, Enrique Pena Nieto.

    At a joint press conference, the president stressed the importance of the countries' relationship.


    We can't lose sight of the larger relationship between our peoples, including the promise of Mexico's economic progress. I believe we have got a historic opportunity to foster even more cooperation, more trade, more jobs on both sides of the border, and that's the focus of my visit.


    U.S. immigration reform will be a central piece of their agenda. President Obama wants Congress to approve a plan that would provide visas for seasonal workers, as well as a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people now living in the U.S. illegally.

    More than half are from Mexico, according to the Pew Research Center. At a November visit in Washington, then president-elect Pena Nieto voiced support for those proposals. But a key issue for Republicans is stepped-up security along the 2,000-mile shared border with Mexico and a stop to the flow of drugs, guns and crime.

    In the six-year drug war waged by Felipe Calderon, Pena Nieto's predecessor, Mexico saw more than 60,000 drug-related homicides. Pena Nieto campaigned on a promise to end that violence. And in April, his government claimed that killings had dropped 17 percent in the new president's first four months in office.

    Pena Nieto has also moved to take more control of his country's fight against the drug cartels. On Monday, his government confirmed that all security decisions would now run through the Interior Ministry, ending years of widespread direct access by U.S. agencies, like the CIA, to their Mexican equivalents.

    Mr. Obama was asked about the decision during a press conference the next day.


    I'm not going to yet judge how this will alter the relationship between the United States and Mexico until I have heard directly from them to see, what exactly are they trying to accomplish?


    Both presidents are eager to stress the importance of economic ties on this trip. Mexico is America's second largest export market, and together the countries do more than a billion dollars in trade each day.

    Last year, the Mexican economy grew by almost four percent, and Pena Nieto has planned ambitious reforms for his six-year term. Tomorrow, President Obama will address Mexican entrepreneurs before heading on to Costa Rica.

    And joining me now to talk about the president's visit and the U.S.-Mexico relationship is Shannon O'Neill, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States and the Road Ahead," and Diana Negroponte, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

    Welcome to you both.

    Diana Negroponte, to you first.

    So Pena Nieto has only been in office a few months. Why was this meeting scheduled so early in his time?

  • DIANA NEGROPONTE, Brookings Institution:

    It's important for Mexico to consolidate a good relationship with the U.S. president.

    So coming this early — and, remember, they met before Pena Nieto took the oath of office, so they have met in November — consolidates a personal relationship, we hope.


    Shannon O'Neil, how differently does — just picking up on what Diana Negroponte just said, how differently does this administration see Pena Nieto from the way it saw his predecessors?

    SHANNON O'NEIL, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, Pena Nieto has come in with a big economic agenda, and he has very ambitious reforms on the plate. And some of them, he's already passed.

    So, he's passed a labor reform, an education reform, a telecommunications reform. And he's talking about energy and tax reform. And this is different from his predecessor, who had a hard time, particularly getting these issues through. So, that's something that the Obama administration wants to work with.

    But we have already seen, as you mentioned, changes on the security side, so an evolution in the way the U.S. and Mexico are going to work together in security situations, more centralized flows of information, which will change some of the day-to-day operations.


    But picking up on the economy, what can come out of this meet, Diana Negroponte, that would make things better?


    I would hope that they could reach some private-public partnerships to build access roads on the border.

    Now, the border matters to trade. The border sees trucks and vegetables passing through each day, as well as human beings. But the logjam, the bottleneck is very bad. So if we can build with private money and public licenses some good access roads, we're going to facilitate trade.


    You mean because — it's tough because of the immigration issues?


    It's tough because each of those trucks will be examined by the CBP, the Customs and Border Patrol. So that creates bottlenecks, even though there are 53 points of entry. The volume of trade has quadrupled. We haven't opened enough border crossings. We need private investment there.


    And picking up on that and picking up on the immigration point, Shannon O'Neill, we have seen reports in the last few days that President Obama, seeing that there's more opposition to immigration reform, there may not be as many undocumented immigrants in this country who — for whom there will be a pathway to citizenship. How much is that on the agenda of these two presidents?


    Well, they will be talking about this because it's an incredibly important issue for Mexico.

    Mexico has some 11 million citizens living in the United States, roughly six million of those here without papers who are undocumented. And they care. They hope to improve the rights and abilities of their citizens here. But I don't see the Mexican government wading into the politics here, because they have seen before the failures of previous big comprehensive immigration reforms. And having the Mexican government or any foreign government step in what is often seen as a domestic policy issue. We won't see any big public announcements on it.


    So, do you see them, Diana Negroponte, basically standing back and just watching with interest?


    They watch very closely. They follow our immigration debate in detail, but they do not want to interfere because they have, as a principle, a concept of sovereign noninterference. So we shouldn't interfere in their energy debate.


    Well, let me ask you about the question of security. As we mentioned in the setup piece just a few minutes ago, this new president, Pena Nieto, changing the way the two countries will be dealing with each other when it comes to the drug war, trying to centralize where all the information goes. How much of a different does that portend to be?


    We have had a very intense, close collaboration with the Mexican government over the last six years. Indeed, never has there been such a close collaboration between the two neighboring governments.

    So there's room to disengage somewhat. A concern for us is how the new security system develops. Will we be consulted? What is the nature of the dialogue between the two governments as Mexico shifts its security strategy?


    Shannon O'Neill, how do you see that? What do you see changing on the part of the Mexicans, and how do you see this administration responding to it?


    Well, one of the criticisms of the deepening over the last — the last presidency, the last six years, has been that often the sharing of information was fragmented, it was decentralized. So agencies were talking to agencies, and even agents were talking to particular agents.

    So, the big strategic security plan, either nationally in Mexico or binationally, sometimes faltered because information wasn't shared. You couldn't see really what was happening. So in part this centralization of information flows will be good to have a clearinghouse where it's a bit clearer what's coming and what's going.

    What the challenge will be is that some of the information we have seen shared really for the first time in the last several years is quite sensitive. It's about active cases and then tracking down kingpins and the like. And here you may see reticence or caution on the U.S. side for sharing very sensitive information. They might do it with somebody they have been working with hand in hand and they begin to trust. But will they send it to a bureaucracy in Mexico City? That's a question that is still up there.


    Is there a concern on the U.S. part that the war effort could be weakened considerably because of this new situation, new system?


    President Pena Nieto told us before that he would focus more on protecting Mexican citizens than going after drug kingpins.

    So we know that there's going to be a shift towards the interior of the country, keeping Mexicans safe from extortion, kidnapping, car robbery. That, we understand. But how you move towards that, the process itself is what is in negotiation or discussion now.


    What were you going to say, Shannon?


    Well, I was going to say security in Mexico in the end is really up to Mexico.

    And there are things that Mexico would like to do and that the United States can help them with. And those are things like helping with the transformation of the justice system, changing the way the court system works. The other things they can do is help clean up the police forces, make them more professional, as well as begin to expand the socioeconomic programs that help youth at risk or communities at risk.

    But, in the end, this is really Mexico's problem. We can help them, and we will, but in the end it's their responsibility. So this government is taking on that responsibility, and presumably doing what they think needs to be done, given how difficult the levels of violence still remain.


    And, of course, Mexico continuing to look to the U.S. and say, you are the ones who are the main market for these illegal drugs.

    Shannon O'Neill and Diana Negroponte, we thank you both.


    Thank you.