WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto reaffirmed the importance of the US-Mexico relationship Friday, promoting the benefits of trade and friendship in an election year that has sometimes stressed that alliance.
In a news conference with Peña Nieto at the White House, Obama said trade with Mexico brings important investment and jobs to the U.S. He said the United States sells more to Mexico than to China, India and Russia combined.
Obama said he has worked to deepen the relationship during his presidency.
"We're not just strategic and economic partners, we're also neighbors and we're friends," Obama said.
The news conference came the morning after the closing of the Republican National Convention and a speech by GOP nominee Donald Trump, whose demands that Mexico pay for a U.S. border wall and descriptions of Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists has offended the neighboring country.
In his speech on Thursday Trump advocated for increased border security to prevent the flow of drugs and undocumented immigrants whom he blamed for rising crime rates in some cities. "No more" would the United States sacrifice its children "on the altar of open borders," he said.
Mexico has the second-largest economy in Latin America but poverty, drug violence and corruption continue to plague the country prompting thousands to flee across the 1,800-mile border with the United States in search of jobs.
Peña Nieto's government is under fire for its handling of a human rights investigation into the 2014 disappearance of 43 students from a rural teachers' college in the state of Guerrero. The White House visit also comes days after Mexico's president apologized for a 2014 scandal involving a $7 million mansion his wife bought from a firm that won lucrative contracts with his administration.
Peña Nieto said a good relationship with the United States is "essential" for his country and said he looks forward to a "frank, open dialogue" with whomever is elected. Pena Nieto avoided questions about the wall, but has previously said that Mexico will not pay for the wall Trump proposes.
The two men also endorsed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement that both countries have signed on to, saying it would make the relationship between their countries even stronger. They said they have learned from the two-decade-old North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump has heavily criticized.
Obama said the global economy is a fact, and "we're not going to be able to build a wall around that."
The visit comes less than a month after Pena Nieto and Obama met in Canada during a summit of North America's leaders. Obama's meetings with visiting foreign leaders are usually announced weeks in advance, but this visit was announced just last week.
The White House shrugged off suggestions that the visit was timed to highlight differences between Democrats and Republicans, particularly on attitudes toward Latinos.
"I think it's fair to say that almost anything that President Obama did on Friday would be viewed as a sharp contrast to the agenda that's being put forward by the other side," said White House press secretary Josh Earnest. "But in this case, it's been a while since the president has hosted the president of Mexico here at the White House."