The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden meets with Mexican president as immigration issue erupts in U.S.

Fentanyl overdoses also on the agenda as Biden sits down with López Obrador

President Biden, with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, upon his arrival at the Felipe Ángeles International Airport on Jan. 8. (Alejandro Cegarra/Bloomberg News)
9 min

MEXICO CITY President Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador met at the National Palace here Monday, embracing in a group hug with their wives as they sought to present a united front amid stubborn tensions over irregular migration and a historic number of deaths from drug overdoses.

“Looking back on our shared history, it is clear that the stronger and safer we both are is when we stand together,” Biden said at the beginning of the meeting. “Mexico is a true partner, and when we work together in common values and mutual respect, nothing much is beyond our reach.”

One day earlier, Biden and López Obrador projected an image of camaraderie riding together in the U.S. leader’s limousine from the airport into the Mexican capital.

In recent days, the Mexican leader provided crucial support for two of Washington’s priorities — signing on to a U.S. plan that will send more border-crossers back into Mexico and capturing Ovidio Guzmán, an alleged fentanyl kingpin and the son of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

For all the goodwill on display, though, there is considerable friction between the neighbors. The fentanyl crisis in the United States has shown no signs of abating, becoming the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18 to 49, and Mexican cartels have become a main source of the drug.

The Mexican president, a longtime leftist icon popularly known as AMLO, has adopted nationalist energy policies that have triggered a major fight with his partners in the North American free-trade agreement. Washington has also lobbied López Obrador to alter his policies favoring fossil fuels over green energy.

Andrew Rudman, the director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, said that in recent decades, “U.S. and Mexican presidents always shared a common vision of the way the world was supposed to be,” particularly on economic issues such as free trade. “AMLO doesn’t share that view.”

How the U.S. lost a key ally in Mexico as fentanyl took off

Monday’s bilateral meeting will be followed by a “Three Amigos” summit on Tuesday that includes Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The session is expected to include discussions on trade and how to strengthen North American supply chains as manufacturers shift production from China because of political tensions and fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

First lady Jill Biden, joining her husband on the trip, pursued her own activities focused on U.S.-Mexico cultural connections and women’s empowerment. Her schedule included an event Monday with Mexican students involved in an NFL flag-football program that promotes gender equality.

Biden has sought to broaden the relationship with Mexico beyond migration, the overwhelming focus of discussion between the two countries during the presidency of Donald Trump. Yet Biden’s trip to the border on Sunday before the summit — his first since becoming president — signified how the subject has become a top concern and a potential political liability as he prepares to seek reelection.

On that Sunday stop, Biden toured enforcement operations and spoke with Border Patrol agents at the busiest border crossing in El Paso. He walked along a border fence and then met with local officials, faith leaders and aid groups at a migrant services center.

Asked what he had learned from the El Paso visit, the president said: “They need a lot of resources. We’re going to get it for them.”

Republicans have criticized Biden for the surge in border apprehensions, which jumped to 1.7 million during his first year in the White House and soared to nearly 2.4 million in his second year. Although last week’s vote for a House speaker exposed divisions among congressional Republicans, the party is largely united around a plan to use its majority to press the administration on its immigration policies.

Biden’s visit to Mexico, the first by a U.S. president in nine years, is the first of what could ultimately be more than a half-dozen international trips in 2023. The ramped-up travel schedule reflects an increased focus on foreign affairs, as the Republican takeover of the House will make it harder for Biden to enact ambitious legislation.

Biden recently announced border security measures including the expansion of programs to remove people quickly without letting them seek asylum and an agreement with Mexico to accept the return of tens of thousands of Cubans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans and Haitians who cross the border into the United States without authorization.

Immigration pivot shows Biden facing the hard reality of border politics

Since taking office, Biden has sought to draw a contrast with Trump, who pushed to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, referred disparagingly to migrants and made a tough approach to immigration the centerpiece of his agenda. But as immigrants have surged toward the border from Latin America expecting a more lenient policy, Biden has found himself caught between liberal advocates demanding a humane policy and Republicans warning of chaos and lawlessness.

Against this backdrop, López Obrador has emerged as a crucial ally of the Biden administration on migration. In the first 11 months of 2022, López Obrador’s government detained 388,611 migrants from Central America and other regions, more than double the number in all of 2019, his first full year in office.

Some analysts have suggested that in response, Biden has soft-pedaled other issues. Human rights groups and congressional Democrats have urged Biden to press López Obrador on his increased use of the Mexican military for traditionally civilian-led tasks and his efforts to rein in political institutions that were created as part of Mexico’s transition to democracy in the 1990s.

Roberto Velasco Álvarez, a senior official in the Mexican Foreign Ministry, denied that his country has sought any quid pro quo for the U.S. agreement.

Rather, he said in an interview, Mexico is supporting Biden’s approach to “have migration that happens in a way that is orderly, that is safe, that is regular.” Velasco noted that a similar earlier accord that would allow 24,000 Venezuelans to seek U.S. asylum — but funnel into Mexico others who had crossed the border without authorization — resulted in a dramatic drop in apprehensions.

López Obrador’s biggest public request in the run-up to Biden’s visit was that the U.S. president land his plane at the recently opened Felipe Ángeles airport. Opposition politicians have accused López Obrador of wasting billions of dollars by constructing the military-run facility instead of finishing another partially built airport that he had alleged was tainted by corruption.

“This isn’t a question of logistics, it’s a political issue,” López Obrador said of his request to Biden, adding that his critics would exploit any snub of the little-used airport, located far from downtown Mexico City.

Luis Rubio, a political analyst, said the Mexican leader views the issue as “a way of consolidating his political position” as he tries to ensure his party wins the 2024 presidential election.

In addition to immigration, drug interdiction is expected to be a dominant issue at the summit.

Aides to Biden have argued that, even in a deeply divided Congress, progress can be made on the fentanyl crisis that has led to tens of thousands of overdose deaths. With much of the deadly substance trafficked into the United States from Mexico, Biden faces bipartisan pressure to crack down on drug smuggling.

Washington faltered as fentanyl gripped America

Trump, who is running to deny Biden a second term, released a video statement Thursday pledging that if he is elected, he would cooperate with Mexico so that “the drug kingpins and vicious traffickers will never sleep soundly again.”

An administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations said Biden’s White House has worked closely with Mexico “to seize record levels of fentanyl” and arrest smugglers.

Yet Mexico has found few labs where the narcotic is made. U.S. officials have urged Mexico to increase its security spending, which is among the lowest among the world’s major democracies. For its part, Mexico is urging the United States to crack down on the illegal export of guns, which have fueled historic levels of criminal violence in this country.

But in many ways, the U.S.-Mexico relationship is flourishing. The summit occurs as bilateral trade is surging, thanks in part to U.S. companies transferring factories to Mexico from China because of political tensions and shipping delays. U.S.-Mexico trade increased by 19 percent in the first 11 months of 2022, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.

Still, many American business leaders worry that such “near-shoring” could be constrained by López Obrador’s policies favoring state-run energy companies over private investment. The United States and Canada have filed a formal complaint that those policies violate the North American trade agreement, launching a process that could lead to sanctions against Mexico. López Obrador says his energy decisions reflect Mexican sovereignty.

Beyond the specifics of the U.S.-Mexico dialogue, Biden is seeking more broadly to establish a more traditional American foreign policy after the unorthodox and sometimes unpredictable style of Trump, who often bickered with U.S. allies and praised longtime foes. In particular, Biden has said he hopes to rally the world’s democracies against the authoritarian approach of China, Russia and their allies.

Barack Obama was the last U.S. president to visit Mexico, attending a meeting in 2014 with the two other North American heads of government. The meeting, colloquially known as the “Three Amigos” summit, did not take place during Trump’s term, as he harangued Mexico and Canada over trade and other issues.

Amanda Coletta in Toronto contributed to this report.