Biden and López Obrador vow to tackle immigration

REUTERS/Henry Romero
U.S. President Joe Biden walks with Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador as he arrives at the Felipe Angeles International Airport, to attend the North American Leaders’ Summit, in Santa Lucia, Mexico January 8, 2023.

MEXICO CITY – President Joe Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Tuesday vowed to reform and streamline the flow of migrants from Mexico to the United States, asserting they are getting control of the volatile issue and taking aim at conservatives for resisting their efforts.

“We’re working together to address this challenge in a way that upholds our nations’ laws and protects the human rights of migrants escaping desperate circumstances,” Biden said, adding that “my Republican friends in Congress should join us in solutions.”

López Obrador, who has not been shy about challenging American policies toward his country, praised Biden’s approach, referring indirectly to former president Donald Trump’s efforts to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“You, President Biden, you are the first president of the United States in a very long time that has not built even one meter of wall,” López Obrador said. “And we thank you for that, sir – although some might not like it, although the conservatives don’t like it.”

The Mexican president said he has asked Biden to urge Congress “to regularize the migration situation of millions of Mexicans who have been living and working in the United States.” He added, “The Statue of Liberty should never, ever become a void and empty symbol.”

The presidents’ comments came at a three-way summit of the leaders of the United States, Mexico and Canada, an annual event informally referred to as a meeting of the “three amigos.” This year, the two-day summit took place as the immigration issue was flaring again in the United States, with Biden proposing new measures amid Republican criticism that he has allowed a chaotic surge of immigrants into the country.

The two presidents, joined by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, agreed to push for progress on issues beyond immigration, including drug trafficking, climate change and supply chains.

Among the initiatives announced Tuesday were a new trilateral semiconductor forum to take place this year, a plan to reduce methane emissions from solid waste and wastewater by 15 percent, and a move to begin installing electric vehicle chargers along the countries’ land borders.

But there were fewer major agreements on the major sticking points in the countries’ relations, with the leaders instead agreeing to continue collaboration on immigration, trade and drugs. Biden, López Obrador and Trudeau committed to continue working together to reduce irregular migration, including by announcing a new website to give migrants more information about legal migration options.

The meeting in Mexico City came at a politically fraught time for Biden, who is in the early days of divided government after Republicans took control of the House last week with promises of aggressive oversight.

Some Republicans have threatened to use their new authorities to block government funding or withhold support for raising the debt limit if Biden does not accede to their demands on border enforcement. House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) on Tuesday criticized the president for “an open border” that has “led to millions of people coming into our country illegally.”

Biden also faces pressure from Congress to act more forcefully to combat the fentanyl crisis in the United States, where the increasing flow of the drug across the U.S.-Mexico border has helped make it the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18 to 49.

The president has sought to present himself as a competent statesman in contrast to “extreme Republicans,” using policy announcements and global forums like the one in Mexico to show he is taking action on issues important to Americans.

Last week, Biden tacked to the political center, announcing new border security measures including the expansion of programs to remove people quickly without letting them seek asylum. He also announced an agreement with Mexico to accept the return of tens of thousands of Cubans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans and Haitians who cross the border without authorization.

“There can no longer be any question – none – in today’s interconnected world: We cannot wall ourselves off,” Biden said Tuesday, standing alongside López Obrador and Trudeau.

Still, Biden’s recent measures have been criticized by both the right and the left. Immigration advocates say that his push to quickly remove would-be migrants violates a promise to embrace a more humane approach than Trump. And Republicans say Biden is continuing to pursue lax policies that invite a flood of undocumented immigrants into the United States.

Biden’s recent remarks – and a trip Sunday to the border, his first as president – suggest an awareness that unauthorized migration continues to be top of mind for voters. Biden has not yet formally announced his plans to seek reelection, but such an announcement is expected in the next few months.

“It’s clear that immigration is a political issue that extreme Republicans are always going to run on,” Biden said in a speech announcing the new border security measures Thursday. “If the most extreme Republicans continue to demagogue this issue, I’m left with only one choice: to act on my own.”

With U.S.-Mexico discussions over immigration and fentanyl dominating the agenda at the gathering, some analysts said that Trudeau risked becoming a third wheel at the summit.

“The big question for Canada is, how does it make a big enough impression to be viewed as more than an ally?” said Maryscott Greenwood, a former U.S. diplomat in Canada and the chief executive of the Canadian American Business Council.

Biden began his day Tuesday by meeting with Trudeau. U.S.-Canada tensions have eased after four years of tumult and personal insults under the Trump administration, but long-standing irritants related to trade remain, and Canadian officials say the Biden administration can be more protectionist than they would like.

One priority for Canada was improving collaboration on the EV supply chain. The country has been pitching itself as an alternative to China for minerals such as lithium and cobalt that are essential to produce clean energy technology, though it remains a bit player.

Trudeau, like his counterparts, referred to the rocky diplomacy of the Trump years, including the former president’s demand that the North American Free Trade Agreement be renegotiated. “People remember what happened just a few years ago when the certainty of this partnership was in question,” he said. “When free trade is at risk, that isn’t good for competition in the global market.”

While Biden hosted Trudeau and López Obrador at the White House in November 2021, Tuesday’s meeting is the first such gathering since the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, a sprawling climate and economic development bill. The legislation, which provides tax credits for the purchase of some EVs, extends some of its benefits to Canada and Mexico.

Those regional benefits are among several reasons the trade relationship between Canada and the United States is “in better shape than compared to the Trump administration,” said Vincent Rigby, a former national security and intelligence adviser to Trudeau.

“There will always be trade irritants in the Canada-U.S. relationship, and President Biden is no different than previous administrations in pursuing protectionist policies that ruffle Canadian feathers,” said Rigby, who is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But I think the overall trade mood at the summit will be positive.”

Still, those irritants are likely to become sharper as Biden prepares for a reelection bid in which he plans to publicly tout the “Buy American” aspects of his agenda, and both Canada and Mexico take steps of their own to promote domestic manufacturing.

As Canada has sought to cast itself as a destination for EV manufacturing. Canadian businesses have worried the tax credits and other incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act and other U.S. legislation for clean energy will put them at a disadvantage.

In a fall economic update, the Canadian government announced two clean energy tax credits in response, praising the U.S. legislation for its “key role” in fighting climate change while acknowledging that “without new measures to keep pace with the [Inflation Reduction Act], Canada risks being left behind.”