When Mexican President Felipe Calderon visits Washington on Thursday, it will be his fifth and most important visit since 2006.
Relations between the two countries are strained. Leaked diplomatic cables and the killing of a U.S. immigration agent in Mexico by suspected drug traffickers are stealing headlines and threatening to derail diplomatic efforts. Thursday's meeting provides a much-needed opportunity for President Obama and Calderon to get bilateral relations back on track.
First and foremost, they must push forward with a binational plan to fight Mexican drug cartels and quell the violence that threatens to spill across the border. The U.S. has already pledged more than $1.4 billion as part of the 2008 Merida Initiative aimed at providing equipment and technical assistance. Mexican officials have said that some of the help has yet to arrive. Both sides must air those concerns privately and move forward.
The death of a U.S. immigration agent in Mexico last month has raised questions about the effectiveness of the strategy currently in place. Calderon has repeatedly pushed American officials to stop the flow of illicit guns and money across the border, as well as drug consumption in the U.S. As this page has argued, Obama should approve a request by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to trace bulk gun sales in four border states.
Obama should also move quickly to comply with the North American Free Trade Agreement and allow Mexican trucks access to U.S. roads. Mexican officials are rightly angered by our failure to comply with a treaty U.S. officials negotiated but have not honored for much of the past 16 years.
And although comprehensive immigration reform remains a distant dream in the U.S., frank discussions about illegal immigration are in order. The flow of immigrants may be down, thanks to the economic crisis in the U.S. and ramped-up enforcement, but those coming are taking bigger risks and facing greater dangers. Immigration laws must be enforced, but secure borders shouldn't make migrants easy prey for criminals and corrupt officials.
And although Obama can't stop state lawmakers who are threatening to adopt draconian anti-immigrant laws like that passed in Arizona, he can support alternative legislation such as the DREAM Act, which would provide qualified students who are in the U.S. illegally a conditional path to legalization.
Obama and Calderon are smart enough to understand that the stakes are too high and the relationship between the United States and Mexico too important to let recent tensions sidetrack this meeting. The alternative is unacceptable.