Mexico's new leader offers to help Obama's immigration reform

Peña Nieto pushes for unprecedented regional talks over drug policies

Enrique Peña Nieto (l) shakes hands with President Obama Tuesday at the White House.
Enrique Peña Nieto (l) shakes hands with President Obama Tuesday at the White House.JEWEL SAMAD (AFP)

Mexican President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto on Tuesday offered to help contribute to Barack Obama's planned immigration reforms. The re-elected Democratic president has promised to make it easier for foreign workers to regularize their situation within the next four years.

Peña Nieto, who on Saturday will be first member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to take office in nearly two decades, met with Obama at the White House where the two leaders also discussed Mexico's bloody drug war and the economic reforms the 43-year-old former state governor wants to apply.

"What happens in Mexico has an impact on our society," Obama told reporters before the meeting in the Oval Office.

The US leader congratulated Peña Nieto for his victory last July, in which he won with nearly 39 percent of the vote, while his closest contender, the leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, received 31.7 percent. Peña Nieto's Washington visit just days before his inauguration symbolizes "the strength of the relationship between the United States and Mexico," Obama said

Once the congratulatory messages had been dispensed with, the two leaders touched on pressing bilateral problems such as Mexican illegal immigrants in the United States. Peña Nieto welcomed the Obama administration's plan for a complete overhaul of the immigration system, which could lead to the legalization of a good portion of the estimated 12 million undocumented workers who live in the United States. Of that number, more than half are Mexican nationals, according to the Washington-based Pew Investigative Center.

"We fully support your proposals," Peña Nieto told reporters as he began his meeting with Obama. "We want to contribute; we really want to participate [...] for the improvement and the well-being of so many millions of people who live in your country."

The nearly 3,200-kilometer US-Mexican border is the number-one crossing point for illegal immigrants entering the United States.

Obama had tried to implement reforms during his first term, but he failed to win support from Congress on the issue. But in June he announced a bold new policy stopping the deportations of some illegal aliens, especially those who are students and have families.

New drug dialogue

As for as his own administration, Peña Nieto said that his first task would be to try to reduce the drug-related violence that has plagued Mexico since 2006, when outgoing President Felipe Calderón called out the military to fight the criminal cartels. More than 50,000 people have died as a result of the country's narco-wars, with most murders having taken place in the northern states that border the US and are key to the drug routes.

In power for 71 years beforehand, the PRI last took the presidential office in 1994 when Ernesto Zedillo was elected. Since 2000, the country has been governed by the conservative National Action Party (PAN).

In an interview with Time magazine, Peña Nieto said that he was ready to push for a region-wide dialogue on the drug problem and discuss the failures of interdiction. "Without a doubt," he said, "it opens a space for a rethinking of our [drug-war] policy. It opens a debate about the course the drug war should be taking. It doesn't necessarily mean the Mexican government is suddenly going to change what it's doing now [...] but I am in favor of a hemispheric debate on the effectiveness of the drug-war route we've been on."

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