Donald Trump heralded a new era of U.S.-Mexican relations on Wednesday, saying he was determined to stop flows of drugs, guns and people across the common border.
In a much-anticipated speech in Phoenix, the Republican presidential nominee sought to recast his rallying cry of building a wall and deporting millions into a broader, more complex policy as he attempts to widen his appeal.
Hours after he returned from a trip to Mexico, Mr. Trump professed his "love for the Mexican people" and claimed his meeting with President Enrique Pena Nieto had set the stage for a new era in bilateral relations.
"We agreed on the importance of ending the flow of guns, drugs and people across our border and to put the cartels out of business," he said. He claimed illegal immigration cost the United States more than $113-billion annually but gave no details. He even acknowledged that many illegal immigrants "are good people" but added that they were lower-skilled and undermined the ability of Americans to get jobs.
Mr. Trump said he was determined to create "a new relationship between our two countries, but it will be fair relationship."
Earlier, Mr. Trump made his hastily arranged visit to Mexico after a surprising invitation from Mr. Pena Nieto, who as recently as last spring was comparing the outspoken businessman to the fascist dictators Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini – for constantly disparaging Mexicans as rapists and criminals, vowing to create a deportation force to round up an estimated 11 million aliens and expel them and build a massive wall to keep them from coming back.
"We did discuss the wall," Mr. Trump said, referring to his oft-repeated pledge to build a wall the length of the U.S.-Mexican border and force Mexicans to pay for it. But, he added: "we didn't discuss payment of the wall. That will be at a later date. This was a very preliminary meeting. It was an excellent meeting." However, Mr. Pena Nieto tweeted Wednesday night: "At the beginning of the conversation with Donald Trump, I made clear that Mexico will not pay for the wall." His comment came after an onslaught of criticism from Mexico's media for his failure to challenge Mr. Trump over the wall at their joint news conference when the President stood silent.
The brief visit was perhaps the most bizarre turn of events in Mr. Trump's year-old bid for the presidency that has upended conventional political wisdom and thrust him into the global spotlight as both a legitimate contender and an object of international derision.
Mr. Trump's draconian vows to end illegal migration into the United States, along with banning Muslims, have been central to his political success.
"Mexican people have been hurt by the comments that have been made," said his Mexican host. But Mr. Pena Nieto said he was confident that Mr. Trump is genuinely interested in building a relationship that will benefit both countries.
The Mexican leader, whose own popularity has sagged to record low levels, outraged many Mexicans by inviting Mr. Trump. Still, he said talks were "open and constructive," adding: "even though we may not agree on everything, I trust that together we'll be able to find better prosperity."
It wasn't clear whether the two agreed on anything specific.
Mr. Trump has backpedalled on his harsh rhetoric and softened the threat to expel millions of Mexicans in recent weeks, apparently seeking support among Hispanics – the largest minority in the United States. The path to the presidency is all-but-impossible unless Mr. Trump can get the backing of a substantial minority of Hispanics, especially in key swing states such as Florida and Colorado.
His critics dismissed the quick visit south of the Rio Grande as crass political opportunism and – unlike the carefully crafted overseas trips previous presidential hopefuls have staged to burnish their stature as statesmen – little more than another publicity stunt.
Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, lampooned Mr. Trump's trip. "People have to get to know that they can count on you, that you won't say one thing one day and something totally different the next," she told the American Legion in Cincinnati earlier in the day. "And it certainly takes more than trying to make up for a year of insults and insinuations by dropping in on our neighbours for a few hours and then flying home again."
The trip was Mr. Trump's first outside the United States since he became the Republican Party nominee, capping a year-long candidacy that combined unscripted populism with tough talk on everything from ripping up trade agreements to forcing NATO allies to pay more or face losing the promise of American defence.
Former Mexican president Vicente Fox dismissed the trip as a "political stunt," saying: "We don't like him. We don't want him. We reject his visit."
In Mexico City, small groups of protesters denounced Mr. Trump and Mr. Pena Nieto's decision to invite him.
At a joint news conference after their hour-long talks, the two men shook hands, a gesture of goodwill that would have seemed unthinkable only days earlier.
In Spanish, Mr. Pena Nieto said the next president of the United States – whoever that is – "will find in Mexico and its government" a neighbour who "wants to work constructively to strengthen even more" the relationship.