MEXICO CITY (AP) — President Barack Obama and Mexico's new president, Enrique Pena Nieto, are stepping gingerly to avoid any suggestion of meddling in each other's most contentious issues. Instead, Obama is drawing attention to the cultural ties that have linked the two nations and the economic bonds that have begun to take hold more recently.
Obama was to deliver a speech Friday to an audience made up primarily of students, highlighting the role they can play in deciding Mexico's future and promoting the type of broad exchanges he envisions under a new immigration regime in the United States. After his speech, Obama was to meet privately with Mexican businessmen, where he would stress the commercial ties between the two countries. Mexico is the second-largest export market for U.S. goods and services.
Later, he was to travel to Costa Rica, where he planned to deliver a blunter message to Central American leaders struggling with weak economies and drug violence.
Obama was to meet with Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla, then attend a gathering of leaders from the Central American Integration system. The regional network also includes the leaders of Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama.
The U.S. view of the region is that its pervasive violence and security weaknesses are holding back economic growth, and that with fewer Mexicans crossing the border illegally, the rest of the region has become the main source of illegal immigration into the United States.
As a result, Obama is expected to call for stepped up security cooperation, regional economic integration, and improvements in human rights and democratic reforms.
Friday's Mexico City speech comes as Obama's popularity in Mexico has risen over recent years and as views of the United States also improve. A Pew Research Center poll in March found that two-thirds of Mexicans have a favorable opinion of the U.S., compared with 44 percent favorability in 2010. About half of Mexicans have confidence that Obama will do the right thing on world affairs, up from 38 percent in 2011.
Still, dozens of migrant families deported from the U.S. even though their children were born there rallied outside the U.S. Embassy before Obama's arrival Thursday. "Obama, don't deport my Mama," one sign said. So far, the Obama administration has deported more than 1.6 million people.
For all the attention to commerce and trade, the visit to Mexico — less than two days long — was not designed for major breakthroughs or new initiatives. Indeed, on one of the top economic pacts before them, the two presidents merely reaffirmed a goal to conclude negotiations this year on a Trans-Pacific Partnership, an Asia-Pacific trading bloc that is key to Obama's efforts to boost exports to Asia.
Both men, however, did announce a new partnership to build on the business relationship with closer cooperation between top officials in Mexico and the U.S., including Vice President Joe Biden.
At a joint news conference Thursday, Obama and Pena Nieto carefully sidestepped potential trouble spots. Obama steered clear of commenting on Pena Nieto's decision to end the broad access that U.S. security agencies have had in Mexico to combat drug trafficking, a decision that has alarmed some U.S. officials.
"President Pena Nieto and his team are organizing a vision about how they can most efficiently and effectively address these issues," Obama said. "And we will interact with them in ways that are appropriate, respecting that ultimately Mexico has to deal with its problems internally and we have to deal with ours as well."
For his part, Pena Nieto declined to get drawn into the current immigration debate in Washington, a top priority for Obama but one that is at a delicate stage in Congress. Asked to comment on the debate, the Mexican president merely said that the Mexican government acknowledged the efforts under way in Congress.
"Mexico understands that this is a domestic affair for the U.S. and we wish you the best push that you're giving to immigration," he said.
Likewise, he demurred when asked to react to the failure in the Senate to pass gun control legislation, including an expanded background check for firearms buyers, even though many guns obtained illegally in the United States make their way into the hands of drug dealers in Mexico.
He said he agreed with Obama's campaign to stem gun violence, but added: "This is a domestic issue in the United States."
Obama vowed to keep pressing for gun legislation, saying: "We recognize we've got obligations when it comes to guns that are oftentimes being shipped down South and contributing to violence here in Mexico."
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