President Joe Biden on Tuesday called migration a shared “hemispheric challenge” in a meeting with Mexico’s leader, his latest effort to recast illegal immigration as a regional responsibility as he faces political attacks from Republicans over his handling of the border.
The two leaders also will work together to make infrastructure investments at the border and disrupt drug smuggling, Biden said.
The meeting at the White House comes a month after Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador skipped the U.S.-hosted Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles to protest Biden’s decision to exclude the leftist governments of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
“Despite the overhyped headlines we sometimes see, you and I have a strong, productive relationship,” Biden said in remarks with his Mexican counterpart in the Oval Office.
Despite the prominence of immigration issues in the meeting, the remarks by the two leaders contained few specifics or new commitments.
Biden has struggled both politically and operationally with more than 2.8 million arrests at the U.S.-Mexico border since he took office at the beginning of 2021, a record-setting level. The two leaders planned to discuss “enhanced enforcement measures” to address illegal crossings, Biden said, but did not provide specifics.
Lopez Obrador called on the United States to allow for more legal work visas, but Biden only went as far as highlighting existing programs used by Mexicans and Central Americans.
In his remarks on Tuesday, Biden touted a $3.4 billion U.S. investment to upgrade ports of entry along the borders with Mexico and Canada that was part of his bipartisan infrastructure plan passed last year, which he said would make the border safer and more efficient. He also said the United States and Mexico would accelerate efforts to stop the trafficking of powerful synthetic drug fentanyl.
“We know we have to meet these challenges together,” Biden said.
Lopez Obrador, who did the majority of the talking at a joint news event before the meeting, said the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement (USMCA) could be used to further integrate the three countries and that some tariffs and regulations could be suspended, although he did not specify which ones.
In comments that highlighted inflation – a political vulnerability for Biden – Lopez Obrador said some Americans are traveling to Mexico to purchase gasoline amid high prices in the United States and pledged to guarantee twice as much supply to meet that demand.
Earlier in the day, the Mexican president greeted a small crowd of supporters, including a mariachi band, who had gathered outside his hotel. Leaning out a window he pledged to push for better human rights protections for migrants and legalization for those already in the United States for years.
“The main thing is the defense of our migrant countrymen,” he said.
Mexicans have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally in greater numbers in recent years amid strong demand for workers in the United States and a sluggish economy in Mexico.
U.S. Border Patrol made about 70,000 arrests of Mexican migrants in May, up from about 18,000 during the same month in 2019. Some of those caught are repeat crossers, driving up the totals.
Mexicans made up roughly half of the 53 migrants who died in a sweltering tractor-trailer during a failed smuggling attempt in San Antonio last month, according to officials.
Republican lawmakers have criticized Biden’s approach to the border in the run-up to November’s U.S. midterm elections, highlighting the Democrat’s stance in opposition to the hardline policies of former President Donald Trump.
The Biden administration has chosen to focus on tackling the “root causes” of migration – especially from Central America – putting U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of addressing complex issues like poverty, violence and climate change that are driving people from their homes.
Harris met with Lopez Obrador on Tuesday morning and emphasized the “longstanding partnership” between the two nations.
The placating words came on the heels of a rhetorical misstep a day earlier by U.S. first lady Jill Biden who attempted to compliment Latinos by saying they were as unique as “breakfast tacos” and later apologized.