WASHINGTON President-elect Barack Obama said Monday that his administration will begin work immediately to strengthen the U.S.-Mexico relationship.
He characterized the existing friendship between the two border nations as strong but said he believes it can be made stronger. He promised to try to make it so.
A week and a day away from taking over as president, Obama met with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, continuing a long-standing tradition by which new American presidents meet with their Mexican counterparts either before or shortly after they are sworn in.
Emerging from a private lunch at the Mexican Cultural Institute that lasted for 90 minutes, both leaders spoke only in general terms about the substance of their talks.
Obama said they discussed the North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, Mexico and the United States, border security and immigration.They also talked generally about the Western Hemisphere, he said.
Obama said he aims to build on the commercial, security and cultural ties between the countries, and pronounced himself an admirer of Calderon's stewardship of Mexico's economy, as well as his efforts to fight deadly drug violence.
Calderon, whom U.S. officials have praised for deploying troops to fight cartels and capturing top drug kingpins, won a multimillion-dollar, anti-drug aid package from Washington last year. Obama supports the plan, known as the Merida Initiative, and has promised to take up another of Calderon's causes: ending gun-smuggling from the U.S. to Mexico.
Obama said the message he brought to Calderon is that his administration "is going to be ready on Day One" to work to build stronger relations with Mexico.
Obama aides said the meeting was meant to underscore the importance of the relationship.
"The friendship between the U.S. and Mexico has been strong. I believe it can be even stronger," Obama declared after a lunch of tortilla soup.
In a statement after the meeting, spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president-elect pledged to find ways to work with Mexico to reduce drug-related violence, stop the flow of arms from the U.S. to Mexico and upgrade NAFTA with stronger labor and environmental provisions. Obama also said he was committed to working with Congress to fix the "broken U.S. immigration system," Gibbs said.
Calderon, who spoke mostly in Spanish, described the discussions as both productive and substantive. He said he and Obama discussed NAFTA and security issues.
"The more secure Mexico is, the more secure the U.S. will be," Calderon said in English.
Calderon also is visiting leaders of Congress during his stay in Washington. He is scheduled to sit down with President George W. Bush on Tuesday at the White House.
Shortly after he became president in 2001, Bush made the first foreign trip of his presidency to Mexico to meet with then-Mexican President Vicente Fox. They promised greater cooperation in dealing with illegal drugs, immigration and energy shortages.
Bush's first state dinner also honored Mexico, with Bush saying at the time that "there is no more important relationship" than with Mexico.
But the dinner came days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As a result, the issue of legalization for millions of undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. fell to a back burner as Bush immersed himself in the response to the attacks and going after those responsible.
During his presidential campaign, Obama raised the prospect of revisiting NAFTA and attempting to negotiate more protections for U.S. workers. But at a meeting of Pacific Rim leaders last November, Calderon said any attempt to renegotiate the agreement would create "not more markets and more trade, but fewer markets and less trade."