MEXICO CITY – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie stepped out on the international stage Wednesday to talk trade with Mexico, but he stayed mum on one of the most pressing questions confronting the two countries and his party: immigration reform.
On a trip designed to help school him in foreign policy and court Hispanic voters should he seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, Christie stuck to economic issues and spoke of a "North American energy renaissance" in which the U.S., Mexico and Canada ramp up investments and do away with "foolish" regulations.
"Too often," he said, "our neighbors in Mexico and Canada have felt that they were an afterthought in U.S. foreign policy. Let me be clear about my view: My view is they should be our first thought, not an afterthought."
But there was no acknowledgement of the need for a sweeping overhaul of U.S. immigration laws, the thorny issue that has vexed Congress and riled American politicians for years. About 70 percent of Latino voters chose President Barack Obama in 2012, and deep divisions remain among Republicans and Democrats over what to do about the 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally, as well as a tide of children flowing across the border with Mexico.
If Christie's visit was designed in part to court Latinos and beef up his foreign policy credentials, he was getting competition on both fronts from his potential Democratic presidential rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The former secretary of state is scheduled to visit Mexico City on Friday before Christie departs. She is appearing at an annual event hosted by a financial supporter of the Clinton Foundation, billionaire Carlos Slim. The event will honor scholarship students helped by Slim's foundation. Christie will be on a day trip to Puebla, and the two are not expected to cross paths.
But Clinton's plans served as a reminder of the high bar any Republican presidential candidate would have to meet to compete with her on foreign policy. Other potential GOP candidates also are making treks to other countries in pursuit of credibility in that arena.
For his part, Christie spoke in diplomatic terms of the "very special relationship" between the United States and Mexico.
"If world events over this summer of turmoil have taught us anything, it is the tremendous benefits of having as a neighbor a key and friendly partner with whom we share an extensive trade relationship and a deeply shared cultural heritage," Christie said in a lengthy policy speech at an event hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce of Mexico. He also underscored the power of the North American economy, stressing the links with both Mexico and Canada.
Christie, who gained national prominence with his brash, truth-talking style, hinted only vaguely at the hot-button issue of border security, talking in terms of modernizing border infrastructure "by deploying hardware and software and security technology" to facilitate smoother trade.
Christie began his trip with a meeting with the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Tony Wayne, and Sandra Fuentes, the consul general of Mexico in New York, in a private dining room at the InterContinental Presidente hotel, where he and his delegation of business leaders, aides and news media were staying.
The group was also joined by Clifford Sobel, the former U.S. ambassador to Brazil, who helped to organize the trip, as well as the governor's son, Andrew.
"There's a lot of things for me to do here, and a lot of things that I'd like to get better acquainted with about Mexico. And so this is really a good opportunity for me to do that," Christie said shortly after arriving.
He continued on a safe note, with scripted remarks in front of an investment seminar convened by one of his state's economic organizations, Choose New Jersey. Speaking at a lectern and sounding tired after an early-morning flight, he stressed the economic relationship between Mexico and his state.
Christie also was meeting Wednesday with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and the country's energy minister before attending a welcome reception at the ambassador's residence.
Throughout the day, Christie acknowledged that the visit is a learning experience.
"I know I have much to learn from the many senior Mexican officials, including of course the president, who have so graciously agreed to meet with me this week," he said during the afternoon speech. "I am ready to hear their ideas about how we can work together more closely, and I hope that our hosts will find this week, and going forward, that I am both an eager listener and an enthusiastic and reliable partner."
Associated Press writers Ken Thomas in Washington and Peter Orsi in Mexico City contributed to this report.