President Joe Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador met at the White House on Tuesday amid record migration in the hemisphere and high inflation that has affected both countries.
Biden sought to project unity between the two nations despite a recent snub from López Obrador, and said he considers Mexico an “equal partner” that has “close ties in family and friendship” to the US.
The two leaders have an at-times tense relationship that recently spilled into public view when López Obrador opted to skip the Summit of the Americas – a gathering hosted by the United States – citing the US decision not to invite Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela.
“This is a relationship that directly impacts the daily lives of our people and despite the overhyped headlines that we sometimes see, you and I have a strong and productive relationship and I would argue a partnership,” Biden said.
The President said a main focus of their meeting would be addressing migration, which he described as “a hemispheric challenge.” He said his administration has been working on creating work opportunities for migrants, including through granting more work visas.
López Obrador spoke for nearly 30 uninterrupted minutes and offered an exhaustive history of the relationship between the US and Mexico.
The Mexican President acknowledged “difficult times” and challenges the two nations are facing, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which he said “has not only constituted grief and destruction, but it made the economic crisis even worse.”
In what appeared to be a dig at high US gas prices, López Obrador said Americans living on the US side of the US-Mexico border have been crossing the border “to get their gasoline in on the Mexican side at lower prices.”
The Biden administration has wrestled with a growing number of migrant arrivals at the US-Mexico border following deteriorating conditions in Latin America exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Following the meeting, the US and Mexico plan to launch a bilateral working group on labor migration pathways and worker protections, and “expand our diplomatic coordination on migration issues throughout the region,” according to officials. Both countries have viewed labor pathways as a way to stem the flow of irregular migration.
The focus on Tuesday, officials said, is implementation of those efforts.
On Tuesday, the administration is also expected to announce joint actions to improve border infrastructure, like investing in ports of entry, enhance law enforcement cooperation to disrupt the distribution of fentanyl, and promote clean energy, economic innovation and prosperity, officials said.
“I think this is the chance for the two leaders to look each other in the eye and try to understand what they can actually accomplish in the relationship,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank.
Despite López Obrador’s absence at the June Summit of the Americas, Mexico signed onto a declaration, along with other countries, to tackle migration in the Western Hemisphere. National security adviser Jake Sullivan said Monday that Biden and López Obrador would build on those commitments, among other issues.
“We expect the two leaders to discuss their common vision for North America, and common efforts to address global challenges including Russia’s war in Ukraine,” Sullivan told reporters.
Leading up to Tuesday’s meeting, López Obrador conceded migration is “central” to his discussions with Biden and has noted that Mexico has been “insisting on the support for Central America and also on increasing temporary work visas, making the migratory flow more orderly.”
That comes with added urgency after 53 migrants died in a sweltering semi-truck in San Antonio, Texas, last month in what officials described as the “worst human-smuggling event” in the US. Twenty-six of the victims were Mexican citizens, the Bexar County medical examiner’s office said in a statement Monday.
Human smuggling is expected to be among the issues discussed between the two Presidents.
“The tragedy in San Antonio is top of mind for both the US and Mexico,” one senior administration official said, adding that work is already underway to tackle human smuggling network and discussions are ongoing to advance that.
The Biden administration last month announced the launch of what it called an “unprecedented” operation to disrupt human smuggling networks. The operation includes deploying hundreds of personnel throughout Latin America and a multi-million-dollar investment.
“There’s a recognition that there is a lot more that needs to be done on this,” the senior administration official said. “Arrests are great, but we need prosecutions. That’s an area where the US and Mexico and Mexico can certainly do more. I think that’ll be a big part of the conversation. How do we increase prosecutions?”
Other areas of discussion are expected to be disrupting networks and detecting the “whole chain from start to finish of the different actors that are involved in the criminal movement of people.”
Vice President Kamala Harris will also host López Obrador at the Naval Observatory Tuesday, ahead of his scheduled bilateral with Biden, according to Harris’ press secretary Kirsten Allen. They will discuss issues like migration and other assistance to the region.
Harris has met with López Obrador repeatedly as vice president as part of her role addressing the root causes of migration in the Northern Triangle. She has also hosted other world leaders at the vice president’s residence including former Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel.