How Obama's Mexico trip sends a message back home on immigration, too

President Obama's Mexico trip is emphasizing trade and commerce, but the message being sent back home is also tailored to influence the congressional debate over immigration reform.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Obama (c.) is welcomed as he alights from Air Force One to begin his visit to Mexico City on Thursday. The three-day trip concludes with meetings with Central American leaders in Costa Rica on the weekend.

President Obama's three-day trip through Central America, which began in Mexico Thursday, emphasizes economic and security concerns. But it also has a deep echo in the US immigration reform debate.

Elected with an overwhelming share of the US Hispanic vote, Mr. Obama has been hemmed in on how hard he can push the immigration issue by the delicate politics of immigration on Capitol Hill, which could make or break the 2014 midterm elections.

But when he meets with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto or with central American leaders in Costa Rica over the weekend, he will be able to subtly embrace the many American Latinos who will be watching closely. 

The president can simultaneously score foreign policy points by emphasizing the US relationship with Central American nations and strike a chord with audiences back home, said Carl Meacham, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, at a forum earlier this week.

The trip offers “a lot of visual symbolism that he’s meeting with these different presidents as equals," said Mr. Meachem, who served as a foreign policy staffer to former Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana for many years. "That also sends a pretty strong signal” to Hispanic voters back home.

Moreover, watching a president who twice trounced GOP challengers among Hispanic voters pile up good press in Spanish-language US media could put pressure on a Republican Party that’s cautiously weighing how to proceed on immigration reform, he adds.

“He’s doing the right things to keep on promoting this," said Meachem. "He’s putting a lot of pressure on the GOP to get its act together on this issue, and this is just tightening the screws a little bit more to make them make a decision.”

How will the president drive home his point over the three-day trip? First, he will highlight the relationships that bind the US to its southern neighbors in speeches and interviews to help accentuate the personal, familial aspects of the immigration issue.

“Hispanic Americans are a growing portion of the population in the United States, they contribute in many ways to” American society, said Ben Rhodes, a White House national security spokesman, on a call with reporters before the trip. “They have family ties in Mexico and Central America and so I think the president will speak to those familial bonds that extend [back to the US] and the context for immigration reform.”

Second, there will be plenty of conversations that begin with broad issues of security and economics – two other key parts of the US relationship with central America – that will allow for the president to loop back to the immigration debate.

While security coordination at the US-Mexico border affects drug smuggling and commerce, for example, it also will allow the president to discuss how the bipartisan Senate immigration reform bill that he recently endorsed provides more than $4 billion in new funding for border security measures.

When Obama and Mr. Peña Nieto talk about ways to grow the US-Mexico economic relationship, they’ll be helping to expand on an already extensive commercial relationship between the two nations, while simultaneously “discussing an issue that gets at the source of illegal immigration because, frankly, if the Mexican economy is growing it forestalls the need to migrate to the United States to find work,” as Mr. Rhodes put it.

(Rhodes and Ricardo Zuniga, the White House director of Western Hemisphere affairs, also told reporters that the president would discuss how the countries could work together on legal migration flows.)

While what the president says will be with an eye toward the immigration debate, don’t expect foreign leaders to weigh in publicly on the matter, however.

Mr. Zuniga stressed repeatedly that foreign leaders have long been apprised of the immigration debate in the US, and that the White House appreciates that they have refrained from commenting on an issue with such difficult political concerns within the US.

"That’s been important,” Zuniga said, “and we think that’s something that’s going to continue.”

Why is that? Because foreign governments see little upside in embroiling themselves in a hotly contested issue that they have little chance to actually influence.

“I think that the Mexicans are going to be very careful in being public about being involved in this kind of discussion,” Meachem said. “I don’t think they see it as beneficial to themselves to get involved in ... the domestic discussions or the domestic conflicts that arise because of the legislative process.”

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