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Obama trip designed to alter Americans' views of their Southern neighbors

Even before departing for his trip to Mexico and Costa Rica this week, President Barack Obama began hammering home a consistent message to his U.S. audiences: When you hear “Mexico,” don’t think only about immigration and trans-border drug trafficking.

Telemundo's Jose Diaz-Balart and Shannon O'Neill of the Council on Foreign Relations join Andrea Mitchell Reports to discuss.

Think instead of a fast-growing economic partner and a neighbor that complements the older, better educated, more affluent U.S. population with a younger, cheaper, and nearby workforce (which already has familial and investment ties to the United States).

In a speech to a crowd made up largely of students in Mexico City Friday, Obama declared, "We are two equal partners, two sovereign nations that must work together in mutual interest and mutual respect.  And if we do that, both Mexico and the United States will prosper."

It's the same message of cooperation Obama delivered to the rest of the region when he traveled from Mexico to Costa Rica Friday evening where he met with a group of leaders from other Central American nations.  The intent was clear -- the U.S. and its neighbors to the South have more to gain by focusing on working together than the problems which drive them apart.  

But the clearest example was the nation that shares the most high-profile border with the U.S.   

Although the Mexican economy has grown at a faster pace than that of United States since the financial crisis of 2009, Mexico’s per capita gross domestic product is still about three times smaller than that of the United States.

It’s a poorer country, and a younger one: People aged 65-and-over account for only about six percent of Mexico’s population compared to 13 percent of the U.S. population.

A lot of recent focus has been on the the illegal trafficking of drugs, guns and migrants to and from Mexico. But in the face of this, U.S.-Mexico trade in legitimate goods and services is booming. Bilateral trade exceeds $500 billion a year and Mexico is the second largest market for United States exports.

A report issued this week by the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington said that U.S.-Mexico trade is growing faster than U.S. trade with China. In fact, it's growing faster than it did in the boom following the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.

As Obama made a point of noting in his speech on Friday, “We sell more of our exports to Mexico than we do to Brazil, Russia, India and China-combined.”

But the Wilson Center report also noted that “the United States and Mexico do not only trade finished products; they build them together. Indeed, roughly 40 percent of all content in Mexican exports to the United States originates in the United States.”

In his speech Obama lamented the fact that attitudes on both sides of the border “sometimes are trapped in old stereotypes. Some Americans only see the Mexico depicted in sensational headlines of violence and border crossings. And let’s admit it, some Mexicans think that America disrespects Mexico, or think that America is trying to impose itself on Mexican sovereignty, or wants to wall ourselves off.”

The implied message to his Mexican audiences -- and to Americans back home who are concerned about illegal immigration -- was that as Mexico becomes more prosperous and, as President Enrique Pena Nieto's economic reforms open the country to more U.S. investment, there will be more job opportunities for Mexicans in Mexico, and less of an incentive to go to the United States to seek work.

“I see a Mexico that is creating new prosperity, trading with the world, becoming a manufacturing powerhouse, from Tijuana and Monterrey to Guadalajara and across the central highlands, a global leader in automobiles and appliances and electronics,” Obama told the Mexican students.

Obama quoted an anonymous man in the Mexican city of Querétaro who, he said, “spoke for an increasing number of Mexicans. ‘There's no reason to go abroad in search of a better life. There are good opportunities here.’”

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

President Barack Obama delivers a speech at the Anthropology Museum during his visit to Mexico City May 3, 2013.

Obama couldn’t help but mention in his speech Friday the awkward topic of U.S. demand for cocaine and other illegal drugs that come from and transit through Mexico. And he acknowledged the return flow of firearms made in the United States to Mexico and Central America.

As the Wilson Center report explained, the illegal trafficking makes the legitimate commerce all the more difficult.

“Recent U.S. National Drug Threat Assessments have suggested that most hard drugs -- like cocaine, methamphetamines and heroin -- are more likely to be smuggled through ports of entry (from Mexico to the United States) rather than around them,” the report said. Policymakers need to figure out how to “simultaneously strengthen security and efficiency at the ports of entry.”

Of course, Obama’s trip also came at a pivotal moment in U.S. domestic politics. Congress is on the brink of debating legislation to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws -- and perhaps to transform millions of Mexicans, Costa Ricans and other Spanish-speaking people now living illegally in the United States into American citizens and potential voters.

At a briefing this week, Carl Meacham, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, called Obama’s trip  “intermestic” -- a trip that is “international and domestic at the same time. It offers him an opportunity to be able to send a message in Latin America that that relationship’s important, with the Mexicans and Central Americans in particular, but also benefit from the fact that there are so many immigrants that come from these countries in the U.S.”

Related:

Read more from NBC News about Mexico

Read more from NBC News about immigration into the US

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