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Obama, Pena-Nieto greet an era of wider cooperation

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Mexican President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto praised President Obama on Tuesday for pursuing a softer posture toward illegal immigrants in the United States and said he hopes to work with U.S. officials to reduce the number of Mexicans crossing the border illegally.

"We fully support your proposal," Mr. Pena Nieto said. "We want to contribute; we want to be part of this."

The remarks came as part of a ceremonial meeting between Mr. Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden and the new Mexican leader, whose inauguration festivities Mr. Biden is to attend in Mexico next week.

The White House meeting set the stage for what foreign-policy insiders say could be the start a new era of relations between the two nations.

With immigration reform, U.S.-Mexican drug-control policies and the possible opening of Mexico's state-controlled energy sector to foreign investment all on the table, Mr. Obama sounded an optimistic tune on Tuesday.

He praised the work of outgoing Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who he said "established an excellent working relationship" with the United States, and said he hopes to establish a similar "close personal and professional relationship" with Mr. Pena Nieto.

Mr. 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."

"What happens in Mexico has an impact on our society," he said.

A variety of recent developments suggest that impact may be headed in positive new directions.

After more than a decade of concern in Washington over the soaring number of Mexicans staying illegally in the United States, the net number of Mexicans immigrating legally or illegally dropped to zero, according to a study this year by the Pew Hispanic Center.

While Mexico continues to have one of the word's highest murder rates, recent high-profile drug-cartel arrests have made a dent in organized criminal activity south of the border.

U.S.-Mexico economic ties have grown quietly since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), prompting some to think the two nations have a unique chance to lean on each other for economic growth.

It remains to be seen whether the administration will back a possible "open skies agreement" that would lift restrictions on the movement of air traffic across the U.S.-Mexico border or support the formalization of a cross-border trucking program.

Some foreign-policy analysts say such initiatives should be pursued aggressively during Mr. Obama's second term if the White House is serious about increasing domestic manufacturing on everything from cars to televisions and airplanes.

The uniqueness of the U.S.-Mexico manufacturing relationship rests in the NAFTA-era concept of "co-manufacturing."

Recent studies by the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars maintain that nearly 40 percent of Mexican-made products exported to the United States originated north of the border.

On Tuesday Mr. Pena Nieto said he looked forward to speaking with Mr. Obama on spurring job growth on both sides of the border.

Some Latin America experts contend that small but key initiatives such as an open-skies or trucking agreement could dramatically expand U.S.-Mexico manufacturing cohesion in ways that rapidly and measurably impact both countries' economies.

"It doesn't need to be a big free-trade agreement," said Shannon K. O'Neil of the Latin American Studies Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

She cited a variety of factors that have come to stand in the way of deepened cross-border economic ties.

On the U.S. side, Ms. O'Neill said, American voters generally "don't understand the benefits that will come from some of these steps."

"When you look at the broader American public, the perspectives are pretty negative," she said.

The first things the majority of Americans connect with Mexico are drugs, drug cartels and corruption, she added.

"Part of the problem and the resistance to change in the U.S.-Mexico relationship is that the constituents for U.S. elected officials have such a negative perception of Mexico," she said.

"That can make it hard for politicians and congressional representatives to push forward on initiatives that would deepen the relationship or expand the relationship beyond fighting the war on drugs."

There also are hurdles to overcome on the Mexican side, particularly among nationalist politicians wary of U.S. dominance.

"There's a group in Mexico that's very suspicious and worried about being overshadowed or subsumed by the United States," Ms. O'Neill said.

Mr. Pena Nieto promoted expanded economic ties during a visit to Brazil in September and is expected to strike a similar tone Wednesday in a meeting in Ottawa with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

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