WASHINGTON -- Mexico’s incoming president told President Barack Obama on Tuesday that he hopes to help him pass a comprehensive overhaul of U.S. immigration policy.
“We fully support your proposal,” President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto told Obama at the White House, part of a visit to the U.S. days ahead of his inauguration Saturday. “We won’t be demanding what you should do or shouldn’t do. We want to participate. We want to contribute. We want to be part of this.”
The two leaders delivered their remarks at the start of their meeting in the Oval Office. Obama didn’t directly address immigration, but he acknowledged Pena Nieto’s interest in the issue and said he’d share with the new president “my interest in promoting some issues that are important to the United States and ultimately will be important to Mexico as well.”
Democrats are hopeful that long-stalled immigration efforts will gain traction on Capitol Hill among Republicans chastened by the party’s performance among Hispanics in the Nov. 6 elections. Exit polls showed Obama with 71 percent of the Hispanic vote; GOP challenger Mitt Romney took 29 percent.
Obama, who failed to enact an overhaul of immigration in his first term, has said he’ll make it a priority in his second and Republican leaders, mindful of the electorate’s demographic changes, say they’re willing to discuss some form of path to legalization for some of the estimated 11 million people who are living in the United States illegally.
Pena Nieto – who’s hoping to broaden Mexico’s profile beyond drug violence and border turbulence – told Obama he’s committed to reducing the violence that’s plagued parts of the country. He added, speaking through a translator, that, “We want the border to be a safe, modern, connected border.”
He said he also was looking forward to talking with Obama about the need to spur job growth on both sides of the border, as well as the issue of strengthening the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the largest trade pact proposed in U.S. history.
Obama praised the work of outgoing Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who he said had “established an excellent working relationship” with the U.S., and said he looked forward to establishing a similar “close personal and professional relationship” with Pena Nieto.
He noted that the incoming president had spent a year in Maine, “where the winters are even worse than Chicago, my hometown.”
Obama said he looked forward to continuing to work with Mexican officials on border issues as well as regional and global issues, noting that Mexico has become an “important multilateral, multinational partner.”
Pena Nieto also met with congressional leaders. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told him that leaders there hoped to address immigration “by having comprehensive immigration reform brought before the Congress when the president sends it to us.”
Obama congratulated Pena Nieto on his victory, noting that Vice President Joe Biden will lead the U.S. delegation to the inauguration ceremony Saturday.
“We only send the vice president to inaugurations if your county is at the very top of the list,” Obama quipped, eliciting a chuckle from Biden, who attended the meeting along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Pena Nieto invited Obama to make a state visit to Mexico, noting that it will host the 2013 North American Leaders’ Summit. Obama didn’t rule it out.
“Any excuse to go to Mexico, I’m always game,” he said.