GUADALAJARA, Mexico — Joined by leaders whose countries border the United States, President Barack Obama on Monday said that while immigration reform is important other priorities such as his health care overhaul and financial regulation will be tackled first.
"I've got a lot on my plate and it's very important for us to sequence these big initiatives so they don't crash at the same time," Obama said when asked by a reporter about the prospects for immigration reform.
At a North American summit in Mexico, Obama also delivered an animated defense of U.S. efforts to help restore Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in a June 28 coup. He said criticism of his policy in Honduras smacked of "hypocrisy," faulting the United States for being too heavy-handed in Latin America and yet telling him he has not intervened enough in Honduras.
Obama spoke at a news conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, where he confronted questions on both his foreign and domestic agendas, from drug in Mexico to the testy health care fight at home.
No mention of disruptive town halls
The president never made direct mention of a matter roiling Washington — the outbursts and hot tempers that have disrupted town halls on health care around the country. Republicans are pointing to them as signs of public dissatisfaction with Obama's health care efforts, while Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to sabotage the democratic discussion.
Said Obama: "I suspect that once we get into the fall and people look at the actual legislation that's being proposed, that more sensible and reasoned arguments will emerge, and we're going to get this passed."
He also spelled out a more detailed timeline on immigration change. The president said he expected draft legislation for an immigration overhaul this year but the matter would not get priority attention until 2010.
"We have a broken immigration system. Nobody denies it," Obama said. But politically and legislatively, it stands behind health care, energy legislation and an overhaul of financial regulatory rules on Obama's first-term agenda.
Drugs, human rights and 'Buy America'
On Mexico's turf, Obama backed Calderon and his efforts to take on drug cartels during a spiraling war on drugs and guns. Washington is debating whether to withhold money to help fight the powerful cartels because of allegations that the Mexican military has been guilty of human rights abuses.
Video: Common ground Obama said he had great confidence that under Calderon "human rights will be observed."
Calderon said the Mexican government has an "absolute and categorical" commitment to human rights.
Targeting the long and painful recession, Obama said that he and the other two leaders agreed to take "aggressive, coordinated action" to restore growth across North America.
Noting the huge trading partnership among the three neighbors, Obama said that commerce must be expanded, not restricted.
Obama said that a "Buy America" provision in the giant economic stimulus package earlier this year had not hurt trade with Canada. "I do think it's important to keep this in perspective," he said. "This in no way has endangered the billions of dollars in trade taking place between our two countries."
Harper rallied behind Obama on Honduras. "If I were an American, I would be really fed up with this kind of hypocrisy," he said.
The three partners on Monday also agreed to cooperate more closely on trying to prevent the swine flu from spreading further.
Started by George W. Bush in 2005 near his Texas ranch, the North American Leaders Summit has become an annual showcase on trade. Canada is the top U.S. trading partner, while Mexico is number three.
Heavy security at summit
This year, as the U.S. economy struggles out of a crippling recession, the leaders met at the Institutos Cabanas, a 19th century home for poor children that's now a sprawling art museum with 23 arched courtyards filled with grapefruit and mango trees.
Streets around the complex were sealed off by heavily armed federal agents and police in riot gear.
The security stemmed in part from the drug wars that have raged in Mexico since Calderon deployed the army in an effort to crush the country's notorious cartels. Some 11,000 people have perished in the conflict.
In a separate meeting with Calderon, Obama voiced strong support of the offensive, but Calderon expressed concerns about delays in the latest installment of U.S. aid under the $1.4 billion Merida Initiative.
Calderon also pressed Obama on allowing Mexican trucks access to U.S. highways. Mexicans suggest the U.S. limits are less about safety — the stated reason — than protecting American hauling companies from competition under the NAFTA free trade accord.
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