President Obama departed Washington on Thursday for a two-day trip that will give him a chance to enroll America’s southern neighbors in the push for immigration reform.
The agenda for Obama’s trip, which will begin on Thursday afternoon in Mexico, is likely to be dominated by immigration, a top concern of countries that have seen an exodus of citizens to the United States.
“The backdrop to the trip, of course, is also the effort that is underway in the United States to promote comprehensive immigration reform, which is of great importance to people on both sides of the border,” Rhodes said in a conference call with reporters. “Mexico is an important partner in immigration reform, given that we work with them every day to secure our border.”
Countries in Central America have lobbied Washington for years to create a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11.5 million immigrants who live illegally in the United States.
Many of those illegal immigrants came to America through the Mexican border. Bolstering security along the route is a major concern of Republicans in Congress, who fear offering a path to citizenship would unleash a flood of illegal border crossings into the United States.
Obama has said a path to citizenship is nonnegotiable in an immigration overhaul and is expected to highlight what the administration says is improved border security during his trip.
But the spotlight will also be on the growth of the Mexican economy, which has led to a sharp decline in border crossings in recent years.
The president’s trip Thursday afternoon will be his fourth visit to Mexico — and his first since President Enrique Peña Nieto took office. He has framed the visit as a way to move beyond the security concerns that have long dominated relations between the two neighbors.
“A lot of the focus is going to be on economics,” Obama said during his press conference Tuesday. “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.
“We want to see how we can deepen that, how we can improve that and maintain that economic dialogue over a long period of time.”
The president has expressed optimism about the chances for passing immigration reform though Congress, an achievement that eluded his predecessor, former President George W. Bush.
“I feel confident that the bipartisan work that’s been done on immigration reform will result in a bill that passes the Senate, passes the House and gets on my desk,” Obama said on Tuesday. “And that’s going to be an historic achievement.”
But the path to passage for a bill is certain to be rocky. A compromise plan negotiated in the Senate is already taking heat from conservative groups who denounce it as “amnesty,” and a number of Republican lawmakers have urged a go-slow approach.
Rhodes said economic growth could eliminate the “root cause” of illegal immigration by giving people a path to prosperity in Mexico.
“Economic development in Mexico will also ultimately get at the root cause of illegal immigration to the United States. So that’s another benefit of the economic growth underway in Mexico. Similarly, both the United States and Mexico benefit from the legal immigration that is a hallmark of the relationship between our two countries.”
Security issues are bound to come up during Obama’s visit, however.
Obama is expected to push for continued cooperation on anti-drug efforts both in Mexico and with the leaders of Central American nations when he meets with them in Costa Rica on Friday.
A growing number of countries are rethinking the war on drugs. Peña Nieto wants to refocus on economic growth and reforms of the energy and communications sectors, and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos made it an issue in last year's Summit of the Americas, when an isolated Obama said, “legalization is not the answer.”
The “Fast and Furious” gun-tracking scandal could also come up during Obama’s time in Mexico. That operation saw U.S. officials lose track of some 2,000 guns that ended up in the hands of Mexican cartels.
The botched Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives operation has caused friction between the two countries, with Mexico's then-Attorney General Marisela Morales calling it “an attack on Mexicans’ security” in 2011.