HomeBusinessMigrant Surge Is Top Concern at Biden Meeting With Mexico’s López Obrador

Migrant Surge Is Top Concern at Biden Meeting With Mexico’s López Obrador


President Biden met Tuesday with Mexico’s president at the White House as both nations face a surge in migration and growing differences on energy, trade and the extradition of WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange to the U.S.

Mr. Biden and Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador discussed joint projects to modernize border infrastructure to improve the flow of people and commerce through the busiest ports of entry into the U.S. The U.S. plans to put $3.4 billion from last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law toward the projects, Mr. Biden said.

The leaders also will direct their teams to create a task force to fight criminal organizations and curb the flow of fentanyl, senior Biden administration officials said, as well as a working group focused on labor, migration pathways and worker protections.

The pair also discussed economic challenges resulting from the war in Ukraine and the growing influence of China, as well as energy and climate issues, though migration was expected to remain a central focus of the private meeting. The Mexican president also met with Vice President Kamala Harris, who has the responsibility for addressing the root causes of migration and met last year with Mr. López Obrador in Mexico. The two talked about the need for public-private partnerships for investments in the region, the White House said.

Vice President Kamala Harris met Tuesday with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador at the U.S. Naval Observatory.


Alex Wong/Getty Images

Recent moves by Mr. López Obrador have challenged U.S. goals in the region. But Mr. Biden pushed back on any suggestions of friction between the two leaders. “Despite the overhyped headlines that we sometimes see, you and I have a strong, productive relationship,” he said as he opened the meeting in the Oval Office.

In June, Mr. López Obrador boycotted Mr. Biden’s regional Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, which encouraged other Latin American leaders to stay away after the U.S. excluded Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela from the meeting. At the summit, the U.S. signed a migration agreement with several Latin American countries, including Mexico, that committed more countries to receiving migrants and providing more pathways for them to live legally.

On July 4, Mr. López Obrador said the U.S. should dismantle the Statue of Liberty if the Biden administration doesn’t drop spying charges against Mr. Assange, who recently appealed his extradition from the U.K. He has said Mexico would grant Mr. Assange asylum if he is freed.

White House press secretary

Karine Jean-Pierre

declined to respond directly to the Mexican president’s comments.. “There will be many conversations that will be had,” she said. “And I’m going to leave it at that.”

Senior administration officials later said the charges against Mr. Assange weren’t an issue Mr. Biden would focus on. Mr. López Obrador didn’t bring up Mr. Assange in his public remarks at the start of the meeting.


What do you hope to see from President Biden’s meeting with Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador? Join the conversation below.

Shannon O’Neil,

a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said such comments from Mr. López Obrador amounted to a missed opportunity for Mexico. “Instead of defining and laying out Mexico’s broad concerns and asks of its neighbor, López Obrador is focused on taunts and provocations,” she said.

The visit to Washington, Mr. López Obrador’s second since Mr. Biden took office, comes after 53 migrants, more than half of them Mexicans, died when they were left in a truck in San Antonio, in one of the deadliest migrant tragedies on U.S. soil.

Mr. López Obrador pushed Mr. Biden to increase the number of U.S. visas for guest workers from Mexico and Central America to deter illegal migration, telling him he should ignore criticism from his GOP opponents. “I know your adversaries, the conservatives, are going to be screaming all over the place,” he said. “The way out is not through conservatism. The way out is through transformation. We have to be bold in our actions.”

The senior Biden administration officials said the two countries didn’t plan to announce additional work visas, adding that the closed-door meeting would be more focused on the implementation of existing visa commitments.

Mr. López Obrador’s rhetoric ahead of Tuesday’s meeting contrasts with the cautious tone he used with former President

Donald Trump,

who threatened to impose tariffs on Mexican exports if Mexico didn’t take stronger measures to curb rising migration from Central America. In response, Mr. López Obrador deployed thousands of soldiers and immigration agents to stem the flow of migrants.

In 2020, Mr. López Obrador sent a letter to Mr. Trump asking him to pardon Mr. Assange. The letter wasn’t answered. Mr. López Obrador said he would bring up the subject of Mr. Assange with Mr. Biden. Mr. López Obrador has a fraught relationship with local media critical of his government, but he defends Mr. Assange, whom he calls courageous and “the world’s best journalist of our time” who has been unfairly treated. At the July 4 conference, he said that if Mr. Assange received the maximum sentence, which implies he would die in prison, “we have to start the campaign to dismantle the Statue of Liberty…because it’s no longer a symbol of liberty.”

One of the deadliest migrant tragedies on U.S. soil took place last month when 53 migrants died in San Antonio.


San Antonio Express-News/Zuma Press

His comments are unlikely to jeopardize bilateral ties or the relationship between the two heads of state, primarily because of Mexico’s leverage over immigration policy, former diplomats say.

“President Biden needs Mexico’s cooperation,” said

John Feeley,

a former U.S. ambassador to Panama who also held senior diplomatic posts in Mexico. Mr. Feeley said he hoped that Mr. Biden would deliver a “strong private message” to Mr. López Obrador raising U.S. concerns.

Thousands of Mexican soldiers and immigration agents break up caravans of migrants and help turn away hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers heading to the U.S. as apprehensions at the U.S. southern border approach a record-high two million this fiscal year.

“Biden is pragmatic. A public rift would not favor Biden and benefit López Obrador domestically,” said

Martha Bárcena,

who served as Mexico’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2018 to 2021. But Mexico is treading a thin red line. “If the U.S. perceives Mexico crossed it, there could be problems,” she added.

U.S. apprehensions at the southern border have reached historic highs this fiscal year.



Mr. Biden said his government was` “also accelerating our efforts to stop the illegal trafficking of fentanyl” and working to slow human smuggling

Criminal organizations such as Mexico’s Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels are the leading suppliers of fentanyl to the U.S. Last week, Mexican soldiers seized more than half a ton of fentanyl in Sinaloa, a record haul.

Disagreements on energy and Mexico’s commitment to fight climate change, a top priority for the Biden administration, will also be discussed. Mr. López Obrador’s energy agenda—in which he seeks to strengthen the dominant role of Mexico’s state oil company and the public power utility at the expense of private and foreign investors—has led to clashes with U.S. energy companies.

U.S. Trade Representative

Katherine Tai

has expressed concerns about Mexico’s compliance with provisions of USMCA—the trade deal with Mexico and Canada—regarding its energy policies.

“We are unable to ignore the growing group of stakeholders also raising their concerns—from environmental NGOs, members of Congress, business associations, and companies large and small,” Ms. Tai said in a letter to Mexican Economy Minister

Tatiana Clouthier

earlier this year.

Mr. López Obrador said Tuesday that the trade deal left “margins for us to intensify our bilateral relationship.” A longtime admirer of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Mr. López Obrador urged Mr. Biden to revive Mr. Roosevelt’s “good neighbor” policy between the U.S. and Mexico.

A senior Mexican official said trade and investment disagreements over energy policies won’t strain bilateral ties. “Fortunately, we have a predetermined route to solve any difference under the trade deal,” the official said.

Write to Juan Montes at [email protected] and Tarini Parti at [email protected]

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