By Maddie Hanna

As he prepares to lead a trade mission to Mexico this week, Gov. Christie has been relatively silent on an issue vexing the Republican Party: immigration reform.

New Jersey's famously outspoken governor, who is considering a run for president in 2016, has repeatedly attacked President Obama in recent weeks over the influx of unaccompanied children trying to cross Mexico's border into the United States.

But he also has deflected questions about how he would change the country's immigration system at a time when congressional Republicans -- who blocked a bill providing a path to legal status for millions of people in the country illegally -- are gearing up for a battle with Obama over the possibility the president will take executive action on the issue.

Christie, who will spend three days in Mexico starting Wednesday, has said the trip will be centered on expanding economic partnerships between New Jersey and Mexico, rather than discussions on immigration.

He said Thursday he had no plans to visit the U.S.-Mexico border, dismissing any comparison to his criticism of Obama for failing to do the same. "I'm not the president," Christie said at a news conference in Sea Bright, jokingly asking whether he should send the New Jersey National Guard to the border, according to the Associated Press.

Given the possibility Christie could run for president, the immigration issue is likely to loom large in Mexico, political observers said.

"The leader that our governor is, I'm sure he'll be expected to address an opinion," said former Gov. Tom Kean.

But Frank Argote-Freyre, president of the Latino Action Network in New Jersey, remains skeptical. He said the trip presented an opportunity for Christie, who won 51 percent of the Hispanic vote in his 2013 reelection landslide, to continue his "cagey calibration" of wooing Hispanic support while trying to avoid antagonizing conservatives.

"He tries to make it seem he's everybody's amigo," Argote-Freyre said, pointing to Christie's decision last year to let undocumented immigrants pay in-state college tuition rates while rejecting a measure that would allow them to apply for state financial aid. "He'll go down to Mexico, put on a sombrero, and get photographed with a couple of Mexican folks. He'll look sympathetic," Argote-Freyre said. "But he won't go to the border and give his talks on immigration."

During a trip to Iowa this summer, Christie brushed off a question about his stance on immigration reform, saying it was too complicated an issue to discuss at a news conference in a parking lot.

The governor has voiced support for changing the immigration system but has not been long on specifics. At a panel discussion last year at the Aspen Institute, he said "allowing the system to continue . . . in the broken way that it is now is negative for America's economy" and cited a need to be fair to people who were in the country illegally.

"The simple fact is that they're not leaving, and we don't have the wherewithal to make them do it," Christie said. "We're going to have to come up with a solution."

With his reputation as a straight-talker, Christie is "going to have to explain what his path would be," said Matthew Schlapp, who served as political director to President George W. Bush in the 2004 election cycle and who is chairman of the American Conservative Union.

"There's an opportunity now, because of . . . the kind of calamity at the Southern border, to explain to the American people and our neighbors to the south a clear path forward," he said.

Embarking on his second trade mission since traveling to Israel in 2012, Christie is expected to meet with top Mexican politicians -- including President Enrique Pena Nieto -- and business leaders in efforts to strengthen and expand New Jersey's ties to Mexico, its second-largest export partner.

The governor, who also plans to spend time taking in Mexican culture, will lead a delegation of business officials, including from the pharmaceutical and energy sectors, and education leaders.

Christie's office did not release specifics last week on the delegation members. The delegation costs will be covered by Choose New Jersey, a nonprofit organization, and security-related costs will be reviewed by the state at the end of the trip, the governor's office said.

Trade missions have long been a practice of New Jersey governors. Israel has been a frequent destination, but governors also have ventured to Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, China, Europe, South America -- and Mexico, visited by former Gov. Christie Whitman.

"It's important for New Jersey to engage," said Gil Medina, who served as Whitman's commerce secretary. Including annual trips to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, Medina said, Whitman went on 10 such missions.

State governments have an interest in promoting trade, given the benefits to the local economy, said Medina, now an executive vice president for CBRE, a commercial real estate services firm. Of 3.8 million workers in New Jersey, about 500,000 jobs are related to import and export activity, as well as employees of foreign firms with operations in the state, Medina said.

Kean, who led several trade missions to Asia, said Hyundai, Samsung, and LG settled in New Jersey after a trip he led to South Korea. "We beat every state for those jobs," Kean said, adding that if trade missions are done properly, it's a job creator.

And Christie's presence is going to open more doors, Kean said. "Anybody who's got the potential of being the next president, people want to get a glimpse of what that fellow is like."

Many gains from trade missions aren't immediately apparent, Medina said.

"We're creating the conditions, and we're creating the connections, to allow the activity between the two jurisdictions to accelerate," Medina said.

Mexico is the third-largest trading partner to the United States and its second-largest export market, with trade in a wide variety of industries, fostered by proximity and relatively low shipping costs.

"It makes sense for New Jersey, for a lot of states, to make efforts to boost trade to Mexico," said Christopher Wilson, a senior associate at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

Mexico recently opened the door to foreign and private investment in its previously government-run energy market, Wilson said. It also has a growing middle class that creates demand for health care and pharmaceuticals -- New Jersey's primary export to Mexico.

(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer