Border BFFs: Obama, Peña Nieto Bond as Agendas Remain Suspect

While running for the Mexican presidency, former State of Mexico Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto was criticized for being simply a pretty face from a notoriously corrupt party who couldn’t remember the names of books he read or name the price of tortillas.

Today, the president-elect came to Washington and easily bonded with President Obama.

Peña Nieto and his first-lady-in-waiting, telenovela star Angelica Rivera, got to mingle with some of the town’s power brokers in advance of his Saturday inauguration, which will be attended by Vice President Biden. “We only send the vice president to inaugurations when the country is really at the top of the list in importance to us,” Obama quipped, eliciting a cackle from Biden.

“I’m very confident that I’m going to establish a strong personal as well as professional relationship with the president-elect, who I know has an outstanding reputation for wanting to get things done,” Obama said before their meeting.

Peña Nieto nodded appreciatively as Obama referred to Mexico as “a very important multilateral, multinational leader on a whole range of issues from energy to climate change” and noted “the incredible contribution that Mexican-Americans make to our economy, our society, and to our politics.”

“And just as President-elect Peña Nieto’s reform agenda is of great interest to us because what happens in Mexico has an impact on our society, I know he’s interested in what we do as well on issues like comprehensive immigration reform,” Obama said. “And I’ll be sharing with him my interest in promoting some issues that are important to the United States, but ultimately will be important to Mexico as well.”

Obama congratulated his counterpart on an “outstanding victory.” Peña Nieto won with just 38 percent of the vote in a face-off with two challengers.

“I of course wish you great success and I know you have a great task before you, but I know, I trust that you will be doing a wonderful job,” Peña Nieto gushed in his remarks. “…I feel so pleased to be able to have Vice President Biden represent you in Mexico.”

“We were both congressmen — legislators, as we say in Spanish — in our respective congresses in our own countries.  And this means we’re very sensitive to the needs of our peoples,” he continued.

“In terms of the reform for migration, the migration reform, we do have to tell you that we fully support your proposal, sir, for this migration reform. More than demanding what you should do or shouldn’t do, we do want to tell you that we want to contribute. We really want to participate with you. We want to contribute towards the accomplishment, so that of course we can participate in the betterment and the well-being of so many millions of people who live in your country and who are also participating.”

As if underlining the real challenges faced by the leaders mugging for the cameras was the grim news this morning that Maria Santos Gorrostieta, a 36-year-old mayor who had survived two assassination attempts from drug cartels, had been kidnapped while driving her daughter to school and found stabbed, burned, and beaten five days later.

Since President Felipe Calderon declared war on the cartels upon taking office six years ago, two dozen mayors have been among the tens of thousands murdered. Peña Nieto’s PRI party, which ruled Mexico for 71 years before Vicente Fox’s victory in 2000, kept drug violence under control by playing the cartels’ game (and allegedly pocketing the benefits).

In a June hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) warned of a “potential crossroads” in the war on drugs with Peña Nieto’s election.

“While in power, the PRI minimized violence by turning a blind eye to the cartels. The current president, Felipe Calderon, has changed that strategy and aggressively confronted organized crime,” Sensenbrenner said. “Mr. Nieto does not emphasize stopping drug shipments or capturing kingpins. He recently told the New York Times that, while Mexico would continue to work with the United States, it should, quote, ‘should not subordinate to the strategies of other countries.'”

“He further emphasized that his priority would be a reduction in violence, not a dismantling of criminal organizations,” the chairman added. “By all accounts, this sounds like a reversion to the PRI policies of old.”

Peña Nieto said today his government “has set out to reduce the violence situation in our country.”

“We have the will to have cooperation, efficient cooperation with respect, respect for our sovereign states,” he said. “And of course in terms of the border, we want our border to be a safe, modern, connected border, legal border — that’s exactly what we’ve set out to accomplish.”

The president-elect told CNN that the biggest problem between U.S. and Mexico right now is the need “to build a greater trust in our relationship.”

“My purpose, then, is to create a relationship, to build a relationship based on trust, a relationship that would be positive, constructive, that would allow us to understand the world affairs and the world matters that both peoples have to face,” Peña Nieto said. “And based on this agreement, we’ll reach a relationship of brotherhood.”

Peña Nieto also met with lawmakers including Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

“I found my discussion with President-elect Nieto very encouraging. I believe he is strongly committed to strengthening the relationship between our two countries and specifically with Texas and the other U.S. states bordering his country,” Hutchison said. “I take it as a good sign that President-elect Nieto has signaled that one of his top priorities is to strengthen the economic, social and cultural bonds shared by our two nations.”

It was no accident that Hutchison and another retiring border senator, Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), took the opportunity today to introduce a bill “to get the ball rolling” on a legislative DREAM Act alternative.

The ACHIEVE Act, under development for more than a year, would put in place a special visa system for young people brought to this country illegally before age 14 (and who are under 28 years old) who intend to pursue a technical or college degree, or serve in the U.S. military.

The first step, a W1 visa, would be granted to students for six years or military members for four years. After attaining a degree or completing service, a W2 visa allowing four years of legal work status would be granted. Then a W3 non-work visa would be eligible for renewal every four years if applicants have followed all the terms of the program.

McCain and Rubio were also instrumental in drafting the proposal.

“This doesn’t change the law as it is today in that if they decide they want a green card or they want to get into the citizenship track, they could do that. Under today’s law there is no change in the requirements,” Hutchison said at a press conference with Kyl this morning. “They will not get in front of the line. They will get in the back of the line. They’re not kept from getting that citizenship track nor are they given a preference in that citizenship track.”

“We’re going to have to count on people like Senator McCain and Senator Rubio and others who have an interest in this issue next year because neither of us are going to be here. And I confess to you, that’s another reason we decided to go ahead and file this legislation now,” Kyl said, acknowledging it wouldn’t likely come up in the lame-duck session. “…We have to have a discussion that is sensible, that is calm, that discusses all of the different aspects of the issue.”

He accused Obama of “violating” his oath of office by issuing the directive earlier this year to waive immigration enforcement on DREAM Act eligible students.

“Those of us who strongly believe in the rule of law believe that in our country if you don’t like the law, change it or seek to change it. Don’t violate it,” Kyl said. “For a civilian, that’s called civil disobedience. For the president, it’s called violating your oath of office and we don’t think it’s a good idea for the president to be put in the position where he says, ‘The only way that I can help these people is to not enforce law that Congress passed and one of my predecessors signed.'”

Kyl mentioned Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who won election to Kyl’s seat, as another potential Republican who could pick up the torch in the 113th Congress.

“One of the things that we tried to avoid was pure, raw political power, ramming something down somebody’s throat,” Kyl said of the bill. “That doesn’t work when you’re trying to get compromise.”

Over in the House, a Flake-sponsored bill directing the Department of Homeland Security to create for congressional approval a strategy for gaining operational control of the northern and southern U.S. borders passed.

“It’s going to be impossible for Congress to tackle immigration reform without achieving operational control of our southern border, and the federal government can’t achieve operational control if they aren’t even using it as a metric,” said Flake.