Mexico Cheers on Immigration Reform From the Sidelines

PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama, right, meets with Enrique Pena Nieto, president-elect of Mexico, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012.Ron Sachs/Pool via Bloomberg
U.S. President Barack Obama, right, meets with Enrique Pena Nieto, president-elect of Mexico, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012.

President Barack Obama is expected to make a sales pitch for immigration reform during his trip to Mexico. But don't expect his counterpart Enrique Peña Nieto, to be outspoken about his desire for the U.S. to pass a bill.

It might seem counterintuitive for the president of Mexico not to forcefully push for immigration reform at a time when the issue is at the top of the U.S. agenda. There are more immigrants from Mexico (12 million) living in the U.S. than in any other country in the world, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Half of those 12 million are in the U.S. without authorization, and could be directly affected by a proposal that offers a pathway to citizenship.

Broadly, Peña Nieto supports the U.S. Congress' effort to address immigration.

During a state visit to the U.S. last November, Peña Nieto briefly told Obama that he "supports [his] proposals" on immigration. Mexico's foreign ministry issued a paper statement in January praising the Senate "Gang of Eight" framework. Aside from that, the Mexican government has been content to quietly cheer on the effort from the sidelines.

"[But that's] a tactical approach. [Peña Nieto] is very much interested in seeing immigration reform in the United States," said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society. "I think that his relative silence doesn't reflect a lack of desire for immigration reform to happen soon."

There are a few reasons why silence is golden for Peña Nieto. The president was just sworn into office in December and has announced his own ambitious domestic reform agenda, particularly in the energy sector and the government's approach to fighting violent drug cartels, Farnsworth said. The Mexican president may just not have the wherewithal to get involved in a domestic debate in the U.S. In turn, he might not want the Obama administration to wade too far into domestic policy issues in Mexico.

But there's another consideration: Peña Nieto could (unintentionally) provoke opponents of the immigration bill in the United States by digging into the discussion.

Farnsworth, who served in the State Department and White House during the Clinton administration, said the Mexican government has likely gotten this message directly from U.S. officials.

"I am quite certain that the White House has signaled to the Mexican government that they are trying to move this forward and that it would be unhelpful if Mexico were to take a high-profile approach to immigration reform," he said.

Cecilia Muñoz, the director of the White House's Domestic Policy Council, told a group of reporters from Hispanic media outlets on Wednesday that officials from Mexico and Central America have "every reason to be concerned about the debate" and U.S. officials "expect them to talk about it."

"We understand that this is something of great importance in the region, and that's obviously something of great importance to the United States and so we would expect a full conversation," she said.

But Muñoz said that Congress will act independently when it comes to the immigration issue.

"At the end of the day, the U.S. Congress is going to be making its own decisions about what happens in immigration reform," she added.

Previous Mexican presidents have not been shy about wading into the immigration reform debate. But sometimes, their efforts to engage publicly have come with negative political consequences.

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."