Mexican President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto's visit to Washington, D.C. on Tuesday -- just four days before he takes office -- will be the first major test of President Barack Obama's post-election foreign policy. Yes, the reelected U.S. president helped defuse the crisis in Gaza and recently returned from Southeast Asia. But his Asia trip was largely symbolic -- a reaffirmation of Washington's announced "pivot" toward the Pacific region. Resetting U.S.-Mexican relations, meanwhile, could prove more consequential and produce a high payoff for the U.S. economy.
Why? The meeting between Obama and Peña Nieto comes at a particularly promising moment when the two nations have a chance to ease two longstanding sources of bilateral tension and mistrust: immigration and anti-drug policy. And more than at any time since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993, both countries have the opportunity to substantially upgrade what is an already robust economic partnership.
President George W. Bush was right when, in 2001, he stated that "the United States has no more important relationship in the world than the one we have with Mexico" -- and it has become far more important since then. With trade between the two countries totaling around $500 billion a year, Mexico is America's second-largest commercial partner -- about equal to China and trailing only Canada. Some projections now foresee Mexico emerging as America's top trading partner in the next 10 years. The demographics are impressive as well; upwards of 32 million U.S. residents are of Mexican origin. They account for more than 10 percent of the U.S. population and more than six out of 10 Latinos. No country in the world sends more of its people to the United States than Mexico, and one out of 10 Mexican citizens now lives in the States -- about half of them with no legal status.
The decisive impact of the Latino vote on the outcome of this year's U.S. presidential election has dramatically increased the prospects for immigration reform in the next year or so. For the first time in decades, both Republicans and Democrats have powerful incentives to reconsider the country's divisive immigration policies.
Neither party should have difficulty coming up with arguments for fixing the broken immigration system. Besides making U.S. immigration laws more humane, a new policy approach would be a boon to the struggling U.S. economy. In the past decade, immigrants have accounted for more than half the increase in America's working-age population. They fill crucial jobs, fuel economic growth and productivity, and help sustain the Social Security system. By addressing critical labor demands and giving law-abiding migrants the opportunity for legal employment and additional training, sensible immigration reform would multiply these economic contributions. And no single policy change would do more to ease friction and build goodwill in U.S.-Mexican relations.