White House

Obama asks Mexico’s help to keep some people out of U.S.

President Barack Obama hosts a bilateral meeting with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, Jan. 6, 2015, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.
President Barack Obama hosts a bilateral meeting with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, Jan. 6, 2015, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. AP

President Barack Obama recently took action to address the flow of immigrants coming into the United States illegally. Now he’s looking for help from his Mexican counterpart.

At a meeting Tuesday at the White House, Obama urged Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to halt the flow of immigrants, including unaccompanied minors, coming from Central America to the United States through Mexico by strengthening porous borders and monitoring passengers traveling by train.

Obama thanked Peña Nieto for his work on the issue so far, but he said both had agreed that more needed to be done. “One of the things that we both agreed on is our continued need to work with Central American governments so that we can address some of the social and economic challenges there,” he said at the end of the meeting.

The leaders spoke face to face for the first time since Obama announced his plan to halt the deportations of nearly 5 million immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally. Mexicans account for two-thirds of those who are eligible, according to the White House.

Peña Nieto praised Obama’s plan, calling it an “act of justice” for millions of immigrants living in the U.S., and he said his government would work to make it easier for eligible Mexicans to obtain the needed residency documents as well as to obtain birth certificates without having to return to Mexico. Under his direction, the 50 Mexican consulates within the U.S. will staff hotlines to guide citizens through the procedure.

But he pressed Obama to allow Mexicans to use his nation’s identification cards as one of the documents to show proof of residence. The White House declined to say whether that would be allowed.

The Obama administration needs Peña Nieto’s help to explain to residents which Mexicans are eligible so that others don’t flock to the United States in hopes that they’ll be exempt from deportation.

The Departments of State and Homeland Security recently launched a public awareness campaign targeted to Mexico and Central America to discourage those who aren’t eligible from coming to the U.S. or helping family members to illegally cross the border.

Peña Nieto said Mexico would do everything it could so the plan “will only be benefiting those people that are supposed to be there, and for it not to generate any misinformation or abuses, especially of the organized crime groups, groups that are doing human trafficking and . . . encouraging the type of migration which is exactly the type we don’t want to have.”

Carl Meacham, the director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Americas Program and former senior adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that until recently Mexico had been lagging in its efforts to stop the flow of Central Americans to the United States. “Obama wants to know what the Mexicans are doing for their part,” he said.

The number of unaccompanied children traveling from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, most of them through the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, surged last year. But the numbers tapered off by the end of the year, and Obama and Peña Nieto said they’d work together to keep them down this year.

Christopher Wilson, senior associate at the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, said Mexico had been trying to find the proper balance on immigration as the nation became a pass-through for Central Americans. “They’ve been struggling with that over the years, with what’s the right response,” he said.

Obama and Peña Nieto spoke at a pair of meetings about a wide variety of issues, including Obama’s new Cuba policy, trade, security and education.

The 48-year-old Mexican leader came to the United States at a low point in his presidency, struggling with allegations of influence peddling, charges that military and police forces enjoy impunity and national outrage over the disappearance – and apparent murder – of 43 student teachers in late September near the city of Iguala.

“Today, in his first official trip to Washington as president of Mexico, 100 days have passed since that night of horror in Iguala,” prominent journalist Joaquín López Dóriga wrote Tuesday in the newspaper Milenio. “Mexico is different now, and the comfortable stage that Peña Nieto enjoyed before Sept. 26 abruptly ended.”

Human rights groups called on Obama to pressure Peña Nieto on the deaths, and across the street from the White House, hundreds of people protested Peña Nieto‘s visit and called for his resignation.

“Our commitment is to be a friend and supporter of Mexico in its efforts to eliminate the scourge of violence and the drug cartels that are responsible for so much tragedy inside of Mexico,” Obama said. “And we want to be a good partner in that process, recognizing that ultimately it will be up to Mexico and its law enforcement to carry out the decisions that need to be made.”

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