By Steve Holland and Mark Felsenthal
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - President Barack Obama told the Mexican people on Friday that he sees a "new Mexico" emerging, with a deepening democracy and growing economy, and that Mexico and the United States should be viewed as equal partners.
"I have come to Mexico because it is time to put old mindsets aside," Obama said in a speech to university students. "It's time to recognize new realities, including the impressive progress in today's Mexico."
Obama tried out a little Spanish on his audience, saying "Es un placer estar entre amigos" (It is a pleasure to be among friends) and struck a deferential tone in speaking about the United States' southern neighbor.
Drug-fueled violence in Mexico is not entirely the fault of the Mexican people, he said. Instead, the United States shares the blame because much of the violence is centered around the Americans' demand for illegal drugs and the fact that guns are smuggled into Mexico from the United States.
"In this relationship there is no senior partner or junior partner. We are two equal partners, two sovereign nations that must work together in mutual interest and mutual respect," Obama said.
Obama's goal on a three-day trip to Mexico and Costa Rica is to emphasize the need for stronger commercial ties and broaden relations beyond the security partnerships that have dominated the past. He is to meet Central American leaders in Costa Rica later on Friday.
Obama's effort is aimed at creating more jobs in the United States and reigniting stronger growth. The U.S. jobless rate for April dropped slightly to 7.5 percent but unemployment remains a problem.
The United States would like to join forces with Mexico to compete for the fast-growing markets for trade goods in the Asia-Pacific.
"Let's do more to expand the trade and commerce that creates good jobs for our people," Obama said.
Obama's speech served to bolster Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who last year took over from close U.S. ally Felipe Calderon. The new government has embarked on ambitious reforms to make the economy more competitive and institutions more accountable to the people, he said.
It is clear that a "new Mexico is emerging," said Obama.
"I see a Mexico that is deepening your democracy, citizens who are standing up and saying that violence and impunity is not acceptable, a courageous press working to hold leaders accountable," he said.
Obama, whose second term got off to a ragged start amid struggles with the U.S. Congress, heard cheers of approval when he said he hoped to gain congressional passage of an overhaul of U.S. immigration laws.
Many of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States are from Mexico, and Mexico remains an important jumping-off point for Central American migrants heading for the U.S. border.
Obama stands the best chance in years to see new laws that would create a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
"I'm optimistic that, after years of trying, we're finally going to get this done," he said.
(Editing by Doina Chiacu)