WASHINGTON - President Obama will seek to cement relations with Mexico's recently elected president, Enrique Peña Nieto, over the next two days with vows of neighborly kinship and future cooperation. But the true test of their ability to work together may be whether they can hold their tongues.
Obama's visit to Mexico City comes as the fight over border security and immigration reform has begun to consume Congress. Peña Nieto supports the effort but he wants to avoid the mistakes of a predecessor, Vicente Fox, who lobbied for a 2001 immigration reform bill in Congress. Conservatives charged that Fox was meddling in U.S. affairs.
Obama will try to avoid the same charge. The White House is monitoring Peña Nieto's calls to reform Mexico's vast energy industry. U.S. companies could benefit if it opens oil and gas exploration to foreign investors. But a public endorsement by Obama, or even a perception of one, could undermine the already-fraught endeavor.
"Mexicans have an understanding of noninterference. So they do not want us to talk about energy, and they will not talk about immigration," said Diana Negroponte, a senior fellow with the Latin America Initiative at the Brookings Institution. "It's a quid pro quo."
If those issues are raised at length publicly, she added, it may signal a "degree of irritation" in private talks.
The two leaders are likely to discuss their priorities and try to exert influence at a bilateral meeting and a dinner, both closed to the media. Mexicans are concerned about the temporary work permits in the proposed Senate bill on immigration, a detail that affects the flow of workers able to travel back and forth across the border.
Obama's aides have billed his visit as a chance to shift the U.S. perception of Latin America from drug wars and illegal border crossings to a region on the rise. This argument leans heavily on the success of Peña Nieto's reform agenda, which includes changes in education, telecommunications, banking and energy.
"What I'd say broadly is that energy is an area of great promise and cooperation across the Americas," Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, said Wednesday.
Still, White House officials say they've put word out that cooperation from Mexico is welcome, but commentary less so - especially on immigration.
"We've emphasized on our side that this is a domestic political issue - primarily," said Ricardo Zuniga, senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council.
"I think Peña Nieto has to be very careful," said Carl Meacham, a director of the Americas Program at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies. "There are elements here who would view what he says as being partial to one side or the other. That is not helpful."
Mexico's interest is clear. About 60 percent of the estimated 11 million people who entered the U.S. illegally or overstayed their visas were born in Mexico, according the Pew Hispanic Center. Any law that puts them on a path to U.S. citizenship, sets limits on future immigration or tightens border security will affect the Mexican economy.
So Peña Nieto is watching the U.S. debate - and his language - closely.
"I think Peña Nieto has to be very careful. There are elements here who would view what he says as being partial to one side or the other. That is not helpful."
a director of the Americas Program at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies