Meeting by video with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Harris said the problem of irregular migration is shared by both nations and others. President Biden named Harris to lead White House efforts to stem migration toward the U.S.-Mexico border, a politically fraught task.
“Our nations face serious challenges — covid being an obvious one,” she said, referring to the coronavirus that has killed more than 580,000 in the United States and more than 300,000 in Mexico.
Other common challenges she described were “economic repercussions coming from the covid pandemic, as well as the surge of migrants arriving at our shared border.”
She used that phrase Friday as she praised López Obrador, who was pressured by President Donald Trump to expand the “remain in Mexico” policy that denied migrants a chance to pursue asylum claims from inside U.S. borders.
Biden ended that policy but has continued to use Trump’s Title 42 public health order allowing U.S. agents to rapidly return single adults and some families to Mexico. The Biden administration is not using the policy to send minors back to their home countries.
Mexico says it has limited capacity to take back Central American families, forcing the Biden administration to release them into the United States pending court hearings.
“It is in our countries’ mutual interest to provide immediate relief to the Northern Triangle and to address the root causes of migration,” Harris said. “You and I have discussed it before. . . . Most people don’t want to leave home, and when they do, it is often because they are fleeing some harm or they are forced to leave because there are no opportunity.”
She is expected to visit Mexico and Central America next month.
Facing a surge of illegal crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Biden administration has said it wants to reconstitute efforts made under the Obama administration to improve conditions in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
López Obrador said he welcomes Harris’s role and pledged that “when it comes to migration, we will help,” but he offered no specifics during the brief portion of the meeting seen by reporters.
“It is in our best interest, based on our political decorum and friendship relations,” López Obrador said in Spanish. Live translation was provided to Harris.
“Sometimes there have been instances among us. However, we have a common border that is over 3,000 kilometers long, and we need to understand one another and avoid fighting,” López Obrador said.
A senior Mexican official said the meeting between Harris and López Obrador lasted about 45 minutes and was “very cordial.”
No specific agreements were reached, but Mexican officials felt that Harris was sincerely trying to establish a good relationship with López Obrador, the official said. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.
López Obrador has been pressing for a full reopening of the border to stimulate the economy. It was closed to nonessential travel at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
In a communique, Mexico’s Foreign Ministry said the two sides had discussed how to encourage trade across the border “in line with epidemiological criteria and the evolution of vaccination” in the region.
Analysts think López Obrador is willing to aid the Biden administration on migration in exchange for various commitments. They include help in obtaining coronavirus vaccines, and López Obrador was expected to propose that the United States provide an additional 5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. His government received 2.7 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses “on loan” from the United States in March after talks on controlling irregular migration.
“I am sure we will keep understanding one another. We have so many things in common, and we are in agreement when it comes to the policies that you are undertaking when it comes to migration, and we will help,” López Obrador said.
He then mentioned that he has “a specific proposal that I believe will be convenient for us” but said he would “leave that for later.”
Analysts believe he also wants a continuation of the Trump-era approach of not interfering in what Mexico considers internal issues, such as corruption and human rights. The Biden administration has elevated the anti-corruption fight in its policy toward Central America, arguing that poor governance and graft contribute to migration.
Shortly before his meeting with Harris, López Obrador told reporters his government had sent a diplomatic note to Washington asking for a cutoff of funding to a well-known Mexican anti-corruption group.
“Our constitution prohibits this, it’s interference, it promotes coups,” he said of the funding for Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity, or MCCI. The civic group received a grant of $2.25 million for 2018-2021 from the U.S. Agency for International Development, according to its website.
The group has done widely praised investigations of corruption but is seen as aligned with the political opposition. Its co-founder, Claudio X. González, is a prominent critic of the government.
In a tweet, MCCI said it “energetically rejects the use of concepts such as interference, interventionism or coup tactics, offered by the National Palace, to disqualify our work.”
Sheridan reported from Mexico City. Nick Miroff contributed to this report.