WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama pushed for sweeping changes in U.S. immigration policy on Wednesday, as Mexican President Felipe Calderon complained that a harsh new Arizona law discriminates against foreign-born workers.
Immigration, a traditional sticking point in the neighboring countries’ relationship, became the focus of Calderon’s Washington visit when the border state passed the law requiring police to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect is in the United States illegally.
The Arizona law has been criticized as discriminatory and Calderon, who had promised to bring it up in Washington, jumped into the controversy in his first formal remarks of the two-day state visit.
Despite their “significant contribution to the economy and society of the United States,” Calderon said, many immigrant workers “live in the shadows, and at times, as in Arizona, confront patterns of discrimination.”
Obama said the Arizona law underscored the need for comprehensive immigration reform and reflects U.S. frustrations, which he shares, with current law.
“In the United States of America, no law-abiding person — be they an American citizen, a legal immigrant, or a visitor or tourist from Mexico — should ever be subject to suspicion simply because of what they look like,” Obama said.
There are millions of Mexican-Americans and Mexicans living in the United States and many Americans travel to and live in Mexico.
The United States needs a new law that secures the border, targets businesses that hire illegal workers and punishes illegals, but gives them a path to citizenship, Obama said. He asked for support from opposition Republicans to pass one.
Obama and first lady Michelle Obama greeted Calderon and his wife, Margarita Zavala, at the White House at the start of the visit. The Obamas were hosting a state dinner later on Wednesday, and Calderon was to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Thursday.
The two countries broadly agree on issues like the global economy and climate change, despite tensions over immigration, border security, drug violence and trade. Their trade surpasses $1 billion a day, and Mexico sends 80 percent of its exports to the United States.
The presidents issued a joint statement affirming their commitment to mutual economic growth, securing the border, protecting the environment, and fighting crime, but offered no major new initiatives.
Analysts said the major outcome of the visit for Calderon would be strong expressions of support for his policies, particularly in fighting the international drug trade, from Obama, who is hugely popular in Mexico.
Calderon is “a leader who is guiding his country through very difficult times with vision and with courage, and he has been an outstanding partner to me and an outstanding partner to the United States,” Obama said.
The two presidents said they would cooperate to crush drug gangs. The joint statement said the United States would speed delivery of helicopters and other aircraft for the drug fight. The traffickers’ turf wars and battles with federal forces in Mexico have killed 23,000 people since Calderon took office in December 2006 and launched an army-backed offensive.
The spiraling violence worries foreign investors and makes some tourists nervous about visiting Mexico. Drug-related abductions have spilled across the U.S. border.
The countries are more closely aligned on the issue than they have been in years, and Mexico is pleased Washington acknowledges that U.S.-made weapons and U.S. demand for drugs are big parts of the problem.
Additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg in Mexico City; editing by Mohammad Zargham