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Obama Crosses The Border


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are going to spend some time today talking about relationships across borders, especially the southern border. Later, we will hear about a practice called medical repatriation that's been documented by a law school think tank. Researchers there claim that a number of hospitals around the country have been sending undocumented patients back to their home countries, even while they're unconscious, to avoid paying for expensive care.

We'll talk about this in just a few minutes. But first, we want to look ahead to President Obama's visit to Mexico tomorrow and Friday. He's scheduled to meet with the country's newly elected President Enrique Pena Nieto. And while the American relationship with Mexico seems focused on immigration and the drug war in recent years, both presidents say they are hoping to broaden the conversation.

Here to tell us more about this, Alfredo Corchado. He's Mexico bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News and he's with us now from Mexico City. Welcome back. Thank you so much for speaking with us once again.

ALFREDO CORCHADO: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: What is President Obama's mission on this trip, and how do you think it might be different from past presidential meetings?

CORCHADO: Well, the original game plan was for President Obama to come into Mexico, spend 24 hours, and try to help balance Mexico's brand name. Get away from the blood-soaked narrative and highlight the economy, talk about education, exchange programs, business responsibilities - ways, more than anything, to make Mexico and Central America a more competitive region and compete with the European Union and China. That's the mission. That's the plan. Things got a little complicated yesterday.

MARTIN: Really? What happened?

CORCHADO: Well, the Mexican government finally, I guess, detailed what they meant by a new security relationship with the United States and that meant really breaking away from the relationship of the past 12 years where U.S. agencies had direct access to Mexican security agencies. The Mexicans are saying now, we want to curtail that. We want to have one central agency and that's who you're going to report to.

The sense in Mexico is that the Americans got a little too cozy since the multi-democracy era began in 2000, that the conservative parties allowed the Americans too much access to the kitchen and the Americans eventually became the chefs, the cooks, staging the confrontation with organized crime. Flying drones over Mexico. And the new party, the new government doesn't feel comfortable about that.

MARTIN: What effect did you think this is going to have on the visit between the two presidents? I mean, on the one hand - first of all, this is their second meeting. I mean, the new president, Enrique Pena Nieto, actually met President Obama in Washington shortly after his election. So they got to know each other sort of briefly. But one senses that there is a lot of concern in the United States about the promise that he made during the campaign to reset the security relationship. Now that these kind of plans are unfolding, what effect do you think this will have on their talks?

CORCHADO: Exactly. The first meeting was a quick, hi, how are you. Officials on both sides say that President Nieto was a little bit nervous. This visit I think a lot of us will be watching for the smiles, the body language. I think they will still try to put a spin on things, you know, highlight the economy. But just talking to officials yesterday, there's a lot of frustration. There's a lot of disappointment. This is not a little bump in the road.

I mean, it's a huge shift in U.S.-Mexico relations. And how they get through the next 24 hours without some kind of a testy exchange I think will be interesting. Basically, you know, the United States spent 12 years investing in Mexico. Billions of dollars, human intelligence, people on the ground getting to know one another a lot better, and suddenly, as one official said yesterday, from the United States, we've been left at the alter.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about President Obama's upcoming trip to Mexico with Alfredo Corchado. He's Mexico bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News. But Alfredo, let's take a step back and ask has this security relationship been achieving the desired result? I mean, the incredible bloodshed that Mexicans have primarily experienced over the last however many years can't be ignored. There's increasing anxiety about the drug war spilling across the border to the north. I mean, does anybody on either side feel that the strategy is actually working?

CORCHADO: That's a good point, Michel. The Mexicans will tell you, you know, we tried this for at least six years under President Calderon. The result, more than 100,000 people either dead or disappear. You cannot continue to fight violence with more violence. We have to focus a lot more on community building and trying to create jobs.

President Pena Nieto has been big on trying to end poverty, as he puts it, or at least try to rise people above the poverty line. There are more than 14 million Mexicans who live in extreme poverty. So his focus is much more social. The Americans are saying, you know what? Great. Let's do that. But what about the intelligence sharing? What about that part of the relationship? We can't do one without the other.

So there's a lot of mixed feelings on the part of the Americans. I think they also realize, you know, we have to try to find a way for Mexico to get away from all these headlines. We have to try to help them find this new narrative and highlight the importance of the region and talk about the economy and talk about immigration reform, etc.

MARTIN: And speaking of immigration, that's another big issue. It's been a very significant issue in U.S. domestic politics in recent years. And even as we are speaking now there's this lively debate going on about the path forward here, enhanced by the poor showing of the Republicans in the last election. And a lot of this attributed to resentment on the part of Latino voters and also Asian-American voters who felt that the Republican Party had a very hard line stance, you know, on this issue.

How is this issue playing out now on the Mexican side of the border? Is it likely to be discussed when the two presidents meet?

CORCHADO: The Mexicans have been pretty disciplined about staying away from the issue. You know, they'd prefer to stay on the sidelines. They've learned from President Fox that if you get too involved in U.S. domestic issues, it's blowback. I mean, it comes back to haunt you.

So up to now, the Pena Nieto government has been saying, we're watching. We applaud President Obama. But it's their thing. Let them figure it out. Let them decide. And, you know, it's really in the end, I mean, there are five-six million Mexicans - undocumented Mexicans.

So on a personal level it's a big, big issue with families who want to be reunited with their sons, their daughters, and other family members. But at least at the government level, I think they're waiting to see what President Obama says.

And if you talk to the American officials they say, look, it's no coincidence that the timing of the trip and the places that we picked, you know, Costa Rica and especially Mexico for this visit.

MARTIN: President Obama is scheduled to meet with, along with the president, you know, of course, he's also scheduled to meet with some cabinet officials, some business leaders, and also some students. Tell me about that. What is the logic there and what kind of reception do you think he's going to get

CORCHADO: That will probably be the highlight of the trip. This is Friday morning. Meeting with students, business leaders. But with the students what they're trying to highlight is exchange programs between the United States and Mexico. And, you know, say what you say about the (unintelligible) of government, is they're trying to walk away a little more from the American government.

The fact is that these two countries are so intertwined and the thinking on the U.S. side is we have to try to help Mexico become a much more highly educated society because in the end, it helps the whole region compete. So they're expected to announce a number of exchange programs. Some of them with possibly with Texas universities.

MARTIN: We've talked a lot about the sources of tension between these two countries and these two governments, and, you know, policy differences where they're butting heads. Just as near as you can tell, Alfredo, overall, what kind of reception do you think President Obama is going to get in Mexico? I mean, if he were - obviously, he's not going to do this - but if he were to get out of the car and walk around and wave at people, how would they respond?

CORCHADO: I think it'd be an awesome response. The polls show that, you know, his popularity numbers are way up, something like 60 percent. There's a big favorable view of the United States, over 66 percent, according to the latest Pew report.

President Obama will be the first American president to come to Mexico City since President Clinton. I mean, here's an African-American president staying here over 24 hours. There's been a lot of buzz about the limousines already, the presidential limousines. So there's a lot of buzz on Reforma Avenue, which is a big - the main avenue, and people will likely line up for the next two days or so to try to get a glimpse of the president.

MARTIN: And on the other side of the equation, what does President Enrique Pena Nieto want to achieve with this visit - which is pretty short. I mean, it's substantial, but it's pretty short. Is there something that he's particularly hoping to accomplish? Is there something that his countrymen particularly want to see him do on this visit?

CORCHADO: He's telegenic. He's got a beautiful wife, and this is a time to, you know, get on the world stage and say, hey, Mexico's much more than drug violence. We have economic reforms, education reforms. I'm a reform-minded president. I'm young. I'm dynamic. I think this is part of a whole idea of let's get Mexico moving. Let's try to change our headlines, and not just throughout the United States, but throughout the world.

MARTIN: And, you know, we have time for one more question, so I want to ask about the first ladies, if you don't mind. I mean, what are the first ladies going to do, if you know?

CORCHADO: What I know is that Angelica Rivera, who is President Pena Nieto's wife, is a beloved soap opera star. And her popularity, in some ways - at least according to the Mexican president - exceeds that of his, especially throughout the United States with the Mexican-American population.

It's been interesting to see Michelle Obama, the first lady of the U.S., on the cover of very key magazines throughout Mexico. I mean, that's something you don't really see, first ladies on the cover. And so that kind of tells you the sense of excitement of having - hopefully having Michelle Obama in Mexico.

MARTIN: Alfredo Corchado is Mexico bureau chief for The Dallas Morning News. We reached him at his office there. Alfredo Corchado, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

CORCHADO: My pleasure, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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