Mexican president urges U.S. to ban assault rifles, overhaul immigration policy

Mexican President Felipe Calderon implored a joint session of Congress on Thursday to ban assault weapons that are showing up in his country in great numbers, and he also denounced Arizona’s strict new immigration law.

Winding up a two-day visit to Washington, Calderon said that his security forces were seizing tens of thousands of powerful guns that they have traced to the United States.

Calderon said the U.S. needed to “regulate the sale of these weapons in the right way.”

“Many of these guns are not going to honest American hands,” he said. “Instead, thousands are ending up in the hands of criminals.”

Mexican officials have long wanted the United States to reinstitute a ban on assault weapons. But in a visit to Mexico City last year, President Obama said reviving the ban that lapsed in 2004 would be tough to accomplish politically.

Calderon acknowledged the difficulty.

“I also fully understand the political sensitivity of this issue,” he said. “But I will ask Congress to help us, with respect, and to understand how important it is for us that you enforce current laws to stem the supply of these weapons to criminals and consider reinstating the assault weapons ban.”

Keeping a frenetic schedule Thursday, Calderon placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery, hosted a lunch with business and opinion leaders, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and met privately with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Repeating a message from his news conference with Obama the day before, Calderon said that Arizona’s immigration law is bad policy.

The law, signed last month by Gov. Jan Brewer, empowers police officers, after a lawful stop, to verify the immigration status of people who they reasonably suspect might be in the U.S. illegally.

Calderon said the law “introduces a terrible idea: using racial profiling as a basis for law enforcement.” He also urged quick action on an immigration overhaul — a proposal that is languishing in Congress.

The Mexican leader said that “what we need today is to fix a broken and inefficient system.”

Mexican reaction to Calderon’s speech to Congress was mixed. Commentators praised Calderon’s rhetoric but noted it was clear that the Mexican government, for all the warm reception and applause, would get nowhere when it came to immigration reform.

“It is a gratifying feeling to see a Mexican president receive repeated standing ovations … and to hear from him such a strong speech,” Gabriel Guerra Castellanos, a former Mexican diplomat and political analyst, said in a radio interview. “There is good chemistry between Calderon and Obama, and that’s a good thing. It does not solve the problems.”

Senate President Carlos Navarrete of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party praised the right-wing Calderon’s “direct and energetic” speech.

“Both his own people and outsiders were surprised by the clarity with which he outlined bilateral themes,” Navarrete said. “But it is obvious that issues like weapons and immigration can only be dealt with in November, if the Democrats do well then and gain seats in Congress. We have to be aware of that and not be asking for something that is impossible.”

Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City contributed to this report.