WHITE HOUSE— President Barack Obama hosted Mexico’s president-elect, Enrique Peña Nieto, at the White House Tuesday. The incoming Mexican leader wants to focus relations with the United States less on the war on drugs, and more on trade.
Four days before taking office, President-elect Peña Nieto visited the Oval Office, in what President Obama said is a longstanding tradition.
Before their meeting, Obama told reporters the visit reflects Mexico’s growing standing in the world community.
“Mexico has become not simply an important bilateral partner, but is today a very important multilateral, multinational leader on a whole range of issues, from energy to climate change," said President Obama.
Mexico’s next president concentrated his remarks mainly on trade, and the importance of increased economic integration with the U.S. and other countries.
“We do have the opportunity to grow, but not only that, we also have the opportunity to integrate North America, to be participating in this part of the world, and I am so pleased that this is the situation we are in," said Enrique Peña Nieto.
The U.S. is Mexico’s largest trading partner, and trade between the two neighbors has increased immensely in the nearly two decades since the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect.
Steve Johnson is director of the Americas Program at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“When it began in 1994, I think the amount of trade between Mexico, Canada and the United States was something like $297 billion. And it has gone up since then, and I think the latest figure is $1.6 trillion. So trade is a big part of the relationship," said Johnson.
Peña Nieto was expected to discuss with Obama Mexico’s bid to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Mexico recently was invited to take part in talks on joining the TPP, a wide-ranging free trade alliance that includes the U.S., Canada and several Asia-Pacific nations.
The president-elect called the prospect of joining the TPP “a great opportunity for all of us.”
President Obama and his future counterpart largely agree on the need to reform U.S. immigration policies.
"President-elect Peña Nieto' s reform agenda is of great interest to us, because what happens in Mexico has an impact on our society. I know he is interested in what we do as well on issues like comprehensive immigration reform," said Obama.
The next Mexican leader said he fully supports President Obama’s efforts to update immigration policy.
“We want our border to be a safe, modern, connected border, a legal border. That is exactly what we have set out to accomplish," said Peña Nieto.
Johnson says Peña Nieto would like to see U.S. immigration policies simplified, to allow Mexicans to enter and leave the United States more easily and legally.
“And that would benefit Mexicans who would like to come and work in the United States and then come back to Mexico. So that is in his favor. It is also in Mr. Obama’s favor, as he would like to see some order put into the process," he said.
Peña Nieto has said he favors a new approach by his country and the U.S. toward illegal narcotics, but he said the two countries’ relations must go beyond the war on drugs.
Mexico has had more than 60,000 drug-related murders in the past six years. The U.S. has offered Mexico $1.6 billion to help fight drug trafficking and drug violence.
Vice President Joe Biden will represent the U.S. at Peña Nieto's inauguration in Mexico City on Saturday.