WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama embarked on a new year of foreign policy by welcoming Mexico's embattled president to the White House Tuesday, seeking help to jump start a new U.S. approach to immigration, Cuba and trade.
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto praised Obama's executive action to shield from deportation some 4 million immigrants — most of them from his country — and his move to re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba. Both presidents are hoping Congress will approve a new trade treaty that would involve countries stretching from Chile to Japan.
And they discussed a scandal that has sparked massive protests in the Mexican streets and a smaller one in the snow outside the White House as they met — the Sept. 26 abduction and presumed murder of 43 college students, allegedly at the hands of local officials and police in league with a drug cartel.
Pena Nieto has drawn criticism for saying it was time to "move beyond" the case just weeks after their abduction and taking a month to meet with their families.
"We are very upset," said Ivan Almonte, a 36-year-old Mexican who has been living in the United States for 16 years and was among the demonstrators outside the White House. "We want Peña Nieto to quit and to tell us where are the 43 students. Why so much silence?"
Obama told reporters at the end of their meeting that Americans have been following the tragedy that has raised concerns about security in Mexico. Obama said Pena Nieto described the reform program he's initiating around the issues.
"Our commitment is to be a friend and supporter of Mexico in its efforts to eliminate the scourge of violence and the drug cartels that are responsible for so much tragedy inside Mexico," Obama said. But he added, "Ultimately it'll be up to Mexico and its law enforcement to carry out the key decisions that need to be made."
Before the meeting a Pena Neito aide, undersecretary for North America affairs Sergio Alcocer, raised the shooting of unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, when asked about whether the students' abduction would be part of the talks.
"We have cases of violence in different parts of the world," Alcocer said. "Within the United States, we know there has been this kind of violence in the area of Missouri, to mention just one case."
Pena Nieto did not mention Ferguson but thanked Obama for working with Mexico on security challenges. And he said he would do everything he could to help spread the word among Mexicans in the U.S. and at home about Obama's action to defer some deportations. He said the Mexican government is ready to help Mexicans living in the U.S. to show proper documentation, including by helping them obtain birth certificates without having to return to the country.
And he said he offered to collaborate on Obama's effort to re-establish diplomatic and commercial ties after a half century of estrangement with Cuba. Obama said he'll participate in the Summit of the Americas, a regional meeting, in April in Panama. But he says he will insist that human rights and other concerns he has about Cuba be on the agenda in what he hopes will be more "constructive" policy.
Years of estrangement between the U.S. and the communist island nation off the Florida coast had long been a point of friction with Mexico and other Latin American countries that do business with Cuba.
"Mexico will be a tireless proponent of good relations between two neighbors," Pena Neito said.
Associated Press writer Luis Alonso Lugo contributed to this report. Follow Nedra Pickler on Twitter at https://twitter.com/nedrapickler