By Mark Felsenthal and Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Mexican President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto on Tuesday backed President Barack Obama's planned push for U.S. immigration reform, pledged cooperation on border security and promised efforts to reduce violence in his own country.
Three weeks after winning re-election, Obama held White House talks with Pena Nieto, who is due to take office on Saturday, to begin forging a personal bond and discuss shared challenges that have sometimes created fraught relations between their countries.
Pena Nieto made clear that Mexicans were closely following Obama's plan to tackle a major U.S. domestic issue - fixing America's immigration system. The porous, nearly 2,000-mile (3,200-km) U.S.-Mexican border is the No. 1 crossing point for illegal immigrants entering the United States.
Emboldened by strong support from Hispanic voters in the November 6 U.S. election, Obama said just days later that he planned to move quickly in his second term to address an immigration overhaul, an achievement that eluded him in his first term.
"We fully support your proposals," Pena Nieto told reporters as he began an Oval Office meeting with Obama. "We want to contribute, we really want to participate .... in the betterment and the well-being of so many millions of people who live in your country."
Obama spoke of what he called a "very ambitious reform agenda" put forth by Pena Nieto, who takes power at a time when Mexico is bucking an international economic downturn but is coping with widespread drug gang violence.
"In terms of security, that's another major challenge that we all face. My government is set out to reduce the violence situation in our country," Pena Nieto said through a translator. "I will do everything we can for this."
Outgoing President Felipe Calderon launched a six-year offensive against the drug cartels that led to a spike in violent crime. About 60,000 people have died in drug-related violence during his term.
Pena Nieto's July victory marked the return to power of the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) after a 12-year absence. He has said his priority will be to reduce violence and focus on tackling crimes like extortion and kidnapping.
Mindful of U.S. concerns about border security, Pena Nieto told reporters at the White House: "We want our border to be a safe, modern, connected border, a legal border. That's exactly what we've set out to accomplish."
U.S. DRUG POLICY FACES LATIN AMERICAN SKEPTICISM
Pena Nieto takes office at a time when many Latin American governments are openly questioning the four-decade-old policies under which Washington has encouraged, and often bankrolled, efforts to disrupt the cultivation and smuggling of cocaine, marijuana and other drugs in the region.
Mexican leaders have been among those who have said the United States has not done enough to reduce its own demand for narcotics, which they see as the driving force behind the hemisphere's drug problems.
Obama could ease tensions with neighbors to the south if he follows through on his promise for an early second-term push for comprehensive immigration reform.
He said on November 14 that he would get a bill introduced in Congress "very soon" after his inauguration in January.
Despite the popularity of such a move among increasingly influential Hispanic voters, Obama offered no specifics about how he would advance legislation that has failed to gain traction even among his fellow Democrats.
A legislative package would include strengthening border security, penalties for employers that hire undocumented workers, and an avenue for the millions of illegal immigrants already in the United States to gain citizenship, he said. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, there were 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants in the country in 2010.
(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick, Editing by Stacey Joyce)