Mexico Cheers on Immigration Reform From the Sidelines

In 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox worked closely together to develop a common agenda on immigration policy for the two countries as part of a broader effort to deepen economic cooperation across North America. But the 9/11 terrorist attacks put the issue of immigration on hold in the U.S. That frustrated both Bush and Fox, and the two leaders grew apart.

Farnsworth said that Mexico's lack of support for the Iraq War served as the main wedge between Bush and Fox. But the immigration issue also played a role in that, especially as Fox continued to advocate for reform post-9/11.

"Any sort of pushing the White House on immigration after 9/11 was going nowhere," said Farnsworth. "If you have a national security crisis on your hands, the last thing you want is someone talking about open borders."

Fox's successor, Felipe Calderón, also was not shy about sharing his feelings on the immigration debate. In 2010, Calderón slammed Arizona's SB 1070 law that cracks down on undocumented immigrants during a speech to a joint session of Congress, calling it "discriminatory."

Calderón had every right to stand up for Mexican citizens living in the U.S. who might be affected by the law, Farnsworth said. But he also acknowledged that Calderón's speech didn't do much to thaw the partisan divide on immigration reform that existed three years ago.

"It's a little bit like inviting a guest over for dinner and then having them criticize the food," Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) told Fox News at the time.

While there's always the danger that Obama's trip to Mexico could provoke critics, there's a significant opportunity for both Obama and Peña Nieto to highlight how immigration reform could spur more economic activity between the two nations and strengthen the ongoing effort to secure their mutual border.

Farnsworth said that the trip gives Obama the opportunity to reiterate his commitment to the immigration issue to Mexican-Americans and to show business leaders who have backed reform what they stand to gain from its enactment.

"It is an enormous part of the rationale," Muñoz said. "It is clearer across the country that immigration reform benefits us economically."

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