Mexico policy shift casts shadow over Obama visit

President Barack Obama is seeking to refocus economic relations between the U.S. and Mexico, even as fresh questions about security cooperation threaten to cast a shadow over the president’s visit to the southern neighbor.

Obama also will use his three-day trip, which begins today and includes a stop in Costa Rica, to highlight the immigration overhaul moving through Capitol Hill, both for an audience in Latin America and for those back home in the U.S.

The president is scheduled to arrive this afternoon in Mexico City for meetings with President Enrique Pena Nieto and members of Mexico’s business community.

Since taking office in December, Pena Nieto has moved to end the widespread access it gave U.S. security agencies helping fight drug trafficking and organized crime. The changes mark a dramatic shift from the policies of Pena Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderon, who was lauded by the U.S. for boosting cooperation between the two countries as he led an aggressive attack on Mexico’s drug cartels.

The White House has tried to play down a potential rift, with officials emphasizing Mexico has kept the U.S. informed about the changes. Obama on Tuesday said he would wait to hear directly from his Mexican counterpart before assessing the changes.

Despite the intense focus on security issues, Obama advisers say the president will try to show that the ties between the two countries are broader than the drug wars that defined the relationship in recent years.

“Security has been so front-and-center in the public discussion of the U.S.-Mexico relationship that lost in that is the enormous commercial relationship between the two countries,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.

Obama is expected to call for the U.S. and Mexico to deepen trade ties to promote job creation on both sides of the border. However, he is not expected to announce any major new economic initiatives.

Mexico was the second-largest export market for U.S. goods in 2011, according to the office of the U.S. trade representative. U.S. trade with Mexico totaled $500 billion in 2011.

White House aides say they also see strengthening Mexico’s economy as a way to address one of the root causes of much of the illegal immigration to the U.S.

Rhodes said the U.S. expects Pena Nieto and other regional leaders to be largely supportive of the immigration overhaul being debated on Capitol Hill, which includes provisions to strengthen security at the 2,000-mile long border with Mexico.

However, Carl Meacham, a former senior Latin America adviser on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the U.S. immigration effort is viewed with “skepticism and confusion” in the region.

“They’ve been brought to the altar so many times by different American administrations that there’s a bit of a lack of trust,” said Meacham, who now works at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Getting Mexico’s buy-in, particularly on border security, could help Obama sell the immigration overhaul in the U.S., particularly to wary Republicans. GOP lawmakers have long insisted the U.S. must focus its efforts on securing the border before addressing the legal status of the more than 11 million immigrants in the country illegally.

The immigration bill being debated in the Senate would strengthen border security, allow tens of thousands of new high- and low-skilled workers into the country, require all employers to check their workers’ legal status and provide an eventual path to citizenship for most of the immigrants in the U.S. illegally.

The president is due back in Washington Saturday night.