In Mexico, Obama Pressed On Immigration, Keystone XL Pipeline

President Obama met on Wednesday with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts about increasing trade and commerce among the three countries.

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The North American Free Trade Agreement took effect just over 20 years ago. It was controversial then and it can be a divisive topic even now.

MONTAGNE: But it's the settled policy of Canada, the United States and Mexico. And when the leaders of those three countries met yesterday in Toluca, Mexico, they talked of their next step.

INSKEEP: They were meeting in an industrial city and talking of spreading a trade zone westward across the Pacific.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: President Obama spent less than 10 hours in Mexico, but said his meetings with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto were fruitful. He said despite parochial pressures each leader must deal with, the three are committed to expanding commerce and reducing trade barriers.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If we stay focused on our shared vision of a North America that's more integrated and more competitive, then progress in each of our countries will mean more prosperity and opportunity for everyone.

KAHN: Yesterday's summit coincided with the 20 year anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement. While all three leaders praised the booming trade NAFTA created, they agreed the pact needs an update.

President Obama said the best way to improve NAFTA is not by renegotiating the agreement, but by raising the bar for higher and more modern standards in the current Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations. That's the 12 nation Pacific Rim agreement that, if passed, will create one of the biggest trade alliances in the world.

Both Mexico and Canada are ready to join, but Obama faces tough opposition from members of his own party and House Republicans. Speaking more to his domestic critics, Obama said he's confident he can win over Congress.

OBAMA: Those who are concerned about losing jobs or outsourcing need to understand that some of the old agreements put us at this disadvantage, that's exactly why we've to have stronger agreement to protect our intellectual property, that open up markets to our agricultural products.

KAHN: And Obama said by opening up the all important Asian markets to fairer competition.

The trade pact wasn't the only issue Obama was pressured about. Immigration reform and the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline came up repeatedly. Obama said immigration reform remains one of his highest priorities, despite strong opposition from Republicans. And he defended the long approval process for the proposed pipeline that would stretch more than a thousand miles from western Canada to Nebraska.

OBAMA: These are how we make these decisions about something that could potentially have significant impact on America's national economy and our national interests.

KAHN: Despite not staying more than a few hours in the country, President Obama said he was impressed with the ambitious economic reforms Pena Nieto has undergone in his first year in office. The praise was a boost for the Mexican leader who has seen his approval ratings drop due to a stalled economy and his new tax increases on everything from sodas to dog food.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language)

KAHN: Not far from the summit, hundreds of students gathered in downtown Toluca to listen to reggae music and protest everything from Mexico's crime and security problems to the U.S. failure to pass immigration reform. Handmade signs read: Obama the reality is Toluca is unsafe and go home.

But despite the noisy concert, the rest of downtown looked like a ghost town amid the tight security and heavy police presence. All schools and most businesses were shuttered. Daniela Hernandez says police cut the electricity to the clothes shop were she works. But she says she hopes Obama comes back soon to visit again in Toluca.

DANIELA HERNANDEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: She says in the past two weeks the government has done more to fix the place up for his visit than they ever have.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Toluca, Mexico.

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