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WASHINGTON — When President Obama flies across the southern border Thursday to meet with his Mexican counterpart, high on the agenda will be immigration.

For the first time in two decades, Congress appears headed toward an overhaul of immigration laws that will affect the future of millions of Mexicans who have immigrated, legally and illegally, to the United States. But with a bipartisan group of lawmakers seeking to navigate legislation through Congress this month, White House officials are hoping that Mexico’s new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, treads carefully in any public comments about the issue.

Obama’s fourth visit to Mexico as president will include his first extended meeting with Peña Nieto, who assumed office five months ago. After a working dinner Thursday night, Obama will travel to Costa Rica on Friday to discuss economic, energy and security issues with a gathering of the region’s leaders.

Mexico is the centerpiece of the three-day trip, and Obama arrives two weeks after Secretary of State John Kerry referred to the hemisphere as the United States’ “backyard,” a perceived condescension that set off Mexican commentators and others in Latin America.

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Officials on both sides of the border have signaled the leaders intend to focus on economic cooperation.

“The bilateral relationship at least with Mexico has been dominated by drugs and violence,” said Joshua Meltzer at the Brookings Institution. “I think there is going to be a concerted effort here to refocus attention on the depth and size of the economic relationship.”

Foreign-policy observers said they expected Obama and Peña Nieto to announce expanded educational and cultural exchanges as well as new economic partnerships aimed at bolstering an improving economy in Mexico.

Trade with Mexico has been increasing as manufacturing recovers from the recession — Mexican plants help assemble consumer, automotive and aerospace products. Hourly wages are about a fifth lower than China’s, according to a report this month by Bank of America Merrill Lynch. A decade ago they were nearly three times higher.

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