Immigration Will Be Hot Topic During President Obama's Trip to Mexico

White House would like visit to focus more on economy over security.

President Barack Obama listens as Mexico's President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto speaks prior to their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

President Obama heads to Mexico Thursday hoping to change the subject of the conversation between the two neighboring countries. After a heavy focus in recent U.S.-Mexican meetings on the grisly violence that has gripped Mexico and the dominance of drug cartels in cities astride the 1,969-mile border, Obama wants to talk this time about the economy.

New Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who took office only five months ago, seems ready to go along with Obama's wishes on the agenda for their summit. But developments back in Washington on Capitol Hill may keep both presidents from getting what they want. It will be difficult for the ongoing legislative battle over comprehensive immigration reform not to force its way into the spotlight in Mexico City in the 24 hours the president is visiting.

If it does, it will fit the pattern of most the 32 previous meetings between U.S. and Mexican presidents since William Howard Taft was the first president to go south of the border. In almost all those meetings, the border and challenge of unlawful crossings were the top topics. But the White House is determined to chart a different course this time.

"A lot of the focus is going to be on economics," said the president when asked about the trip at his press conference. "We've spent so much time on security issues between the United States and Mexico that sometimes I think we forget this is a massive trading partner responsible for huge amounts of commerce and huge numbers of jobs on both sides of the border."

Obama's comments reflect "a desire to depoliticize and to lower the profile of security cooperation at least at the level of public consciousness," said Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute for the Woodrow Wilson Center. The White House, he said, has "a desire to focus on the strong economic fundamentals, competitiveness."

When past leaders have tried to change the subject in the past, people in both countries have dismissed it because they knew Mexico's economy was bad and was driving desperate Mexicans across the border. But this time, the Mexican economy is doing well, showing a much more robust recovery from the 2008-2009 recession than its neighbor to the north. "The reality is that Mexico's economy is moving," said Christopher Wilson, an associate at the center, who said both leaders want to move beyond the stories of violence and crime and cartels. He calls this meeting "a correction of the narrative that was uberly negative," adding, "It does make sense to have a shift in the narrative."

Summit planners "want the lead story to be about the economy and trade and growth," said Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "And there's actually a good story to tell there. It's not a fake story. It's real."

With that goal, there will be ample talk about GDP, energy cooperation, education exchanges, commercial cooperation and trade expansion when the president is in Mexico on Thursday before moving to Costa Rica on Friday and returning to Washington on Saturday. In Costa Rica, he will meet with the leaders of the Central American countries of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Belize, Panama, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. Obama will hold press conferences in both countries, give several interviews, deliver a speech in Mexico City and meet with hemispheric business leaders in San Jose.

The very-public lecturing often heard from Mexican leaders at earlier summits is not expected this time, in part because Mexico is pleased that immigration reform seems to be gaining some momentum in Washington and leaders do not want to intrude in the domestic debate. "They are acutely focused on it," said Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, who told reporters the leaders in the region have been "broadly cooperative with our efforts to reform our immigration system." But, noted Ricardo Zuniga, senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs on the NSC, the leaders "have also been very respectful of the fact that this is a domestic political process in the United States." Pena Nieto does not want anything he says this week to sidetrack the process or be used by those opposed to comprehensive reform.

Rhodes said the two presidents will have a lengthy discussion of immigration, though, in part because no reform can work without "increased and enhanced U.S.-Mexican bilateral cooperation on border security."

Another topic to be discussed -- but probably downplayed in public "“ will be the new Mexican president's decision to review security and crime cooperation with the United States in the battle against drug trafficers and the cartels. Rhodes insisted the White House is neither surprised nor upset by the action. "With the new Mexican administration coming into office," he said, "it certainly stands to reason that President Pena Nieto would want to take a look at the nature of our cooperation."

In a preview of what Obama hopes to do in his meetings, though, Rhodes tried to change the subject. "Security is always going to be a part of what we do together," he said. "But we also feel that these economic and commercial issues demand greater attention and that's what both presidents are focused on."

Joshua Meltzer, a Latin American expert at the Brookings Institution, sees a link between showcasing Mexico's robust economy and the push for immigration reform. "Part of the emphasis on the economic relationship is also an attempt," he said, "to change the perception in America about Mexico and Mexican immigrants."