In Mexico, Obama says that now is the right time for immigration reform

Mexico's booming economy and its growing ties with the United States make this the right time to pass immigration reform, President Obama said Thursday during his fourth trip south of the border.

Speaking at a press conference alongside Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Obama said the two countries are economically intertwined. He vowed closer cooperation on an array of issues – from trade to clean energy to education – and urged Congress not to get hung up over border issues to justify inaction.

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“I think it's important for everybody to remember that our shared border is more secure than it's been in years,” he said in an indirect jab at congressional Republicans who have threatened to block a pathway to citizenship for the millions of immigrants in the country illegally.

“Illegal immigration attempts into the United States are near their lowest level in decades. And legal immigration continues to make both of our countries stronger and more prosperous and more competitive. And this in part reflects the economic progress and greater opportunities here in Mexico. I think this progress should help inform the debate in the United States.”

The remarks come as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a key leader on immigration reform, warned that border security would have to be tightened for many lawmakers to sign off on citizenship provisions.

“This bill will not pass the House and, quite frankly I think, may struggle to pass the Senate if it doesn’t deal with that issue,” Rubio said on Sean Hannity's radio program. “So we’ve got some work to do on that front.”

Obama's trip aims to create a new relationship with the new Mexican president – Peña Nieto was inaugurated in December – and the broader Latin American region, which often complains of getting short shrift from Washington. In his remarks, Obama said he understood Mexicans' frustrations and repeatedly referred to them as America's natural allies in a North American trading block competing with the rest of the world.

“When the United States prospers, Mexico does well. And when Mexico does well, the United States does well,” Obama said. “That I think is the main message of my visit here today.”

He went on to highlight the contributions of the tens of millions of Mexicans living in the United States and the $500 billion in annual trade between the two countries. Mexico is the United States' second largest trading partner, behind Canada.

“Mexico and the United States have one of the largest, most dynamic relationships of any two countries on earth,” Obama said. “And yet we don't always hear about all aspects of these extraordinary ties because too often two issues get attention – security or immigration.”

He said those two issues remain crucial to better ties, however, and vowed that the United States would do its part. Peña Nieto has promised to refocus efforts on violence reduction instead of his predecessor's brutal war against drug cartels, while the “Fast and Furious” gun-tracking scandal has created additional tensions south of the border after Mexican police were killed with some of the 2,000 guns federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives lost control of.

“We anticipate that there's going to be strong cooperation,” Obama said. “On our side of the border, we have continued work to do to reduce demand [for illegal drugs] and to try to stem the flow of guns and cash from north to south.”

Peña Nieto praised his counterpart's outreach.

“We have relaunched our relationship,” he said.

He went on to declare his support for immigration reform and stalled gun control legislation, but said they were internal U.S. issues even though they deeply affect his country.

“What Mexico would like to see happening in the U.S. is to control better the sales of weapons,” he said. 

The two leaders issued a joint statement prior to the press conference announcing the creation of a “High Level Economic Dialogue” aimed at bringing the two countries' economies closer together. The first meeting of the Dialogue, which will be chaired at the Cabinet level and include Vice President Biden, is expected to take place this year.

They also signed off on a “Bilateral Forum on Higher Education, Innovation, and Research” that will seek to encourage access to post-secondary education for demographic groups that have been historically been shut out of higher education, especially in the sciences. 

“Just as Enrique once studied in our country,” Obama said, “we want more Mexicans studying in the United States. And we want more Americans studying here in Mexico.”

Obama is scheduled to have dinner with Peña Nieto Thursday evening before addressing university students at Mexico City's National Anthropology Museum Friday morning. He'll then head to Costa Rica for meetings with President Laura Chinchilla on Friday and with Central American leaders on Saturday.