How Biden is navigating his relationship with Mexico’s President

When President Joe Biden tapped Vice President Kamala

When President Joe Biden tapped Vice President Kamala Harris in March to address the surge of migrants seeking to enter the United States, he also enlisted her help to solve a thorny diplomatic problem: improving relations with Mexico.

A smoother relationship with Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador could be a game changer for efforts to stem the flow of migrants. But López Obrador, a populist leader also known by his initials AMLO, has been slow to warm up to Biden and his team. Harris will have a chance to make inroads in a virtual meeting Friday and a planned visit in June.

It probably won’t be easy.

AMLO’s lack of enthusiasm for close ties with Biden was evident months before the Democratic president took office. Last summer, AMLO, who had forged an unlikely friendship with President Donald Trump, traveled to Washington to mark the enactment of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). He lavished praise on Trump for “respecting” Mexico but snubbed senior Democrats and skipped the chance to meet then-candidate Biden.

In a more pointed diplomatic jab, AMLO was one of the last foreign leaders to congratulate Biden on his election win and even as he did so, he issued a chilly salvo making clear he wanted the incoming president to stay out of Mexico’s affairs.

More recently, López Obrador piled on as Republicans blamed Biden for an influx of migrants, particularly unaccompanied minors, showing up at the southern border, undercutting the Biden administration’s defense that the increase was the result of a seasonal surge compounded by the coronavirus pandemic and a series of natural disasters.

“Expectations were created that with the government of President Biden there would be a better treatment of migrants,” AMLO said in a March 23 press conference. “And this has caused Central American migrants, and also [migrants] from our country, wanting to cross the border thinking that it is easier to do so.”

But the Biden administration has a huge stake in better ties as he and AMLO look to resolve a migration problem that could damage both of their presidencies. ​​​​​​

In Friday’s virtual chat and a meeting June 7-8, Harris takes on diplomatic negotiations with Mexico and the so-called Northern Triangle countries, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, to address the root causes of migration – a role Biden similarly played under former President Barack Obama.

Harris is seeking Mexico’s continued cooperation on immigration enforcement amid a surge of illegal border crossings after Biden reversed Trump-era, hardline immigration policies, some of which were brokered with AMLO.

The vice president also pitched Mexico on a regional approach to limit migration by investing in anti-corruption and economic programs in Central American countries as well as look for commitments on climate change and labor protections.

“We must continue to do our work in a way that is both bilateral and multilateral. It is our intention and it has been a guiding principle of us that we are going to do this work in a way that internationalizes our approach,” Harris told AMLO. “That reaches out to our allies, to our friends around the globe in the mutual interest that we all should have to address the root causes in the Northern Triangle.”

AMLO acknowledged that “relations were not completely positive between our countries” when he first met with Biden in March, but assured Harris the U.S. could count on Mexico when it comes to migration policy.

Biden has promised a sharp break from his predecessor’s foreign policy, trumpeting the message “America is back.”

That pledge has done little to win over AMLO, who established a rapport with Trump despite the Republican president’s 2016 campaign rhetoric attacking Mexican immigrants as “rapists and murderers” and his promise to build a “big, beautiful wall” along the southern border – which he said Mexico should pay for.

While Trump and López Obrador made strange bedfellows, the pair found a balance in a transactional approach on immigration. AMLO would help stem the tide of Central American migrants, including allowing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico border towns for U.S. court appearances, and Trump would turn a blind eye to Mexican domestic issues.

David Rothkopf, author of “Traitor: A History of American Betrayal from Benedict Arnold to Donald Trump,” said he doesn’t expect Biden’s relationship with AMLO to be as easy as it was under Trump as it will be more complex.

“AMLO’s populist, nationalistic thrust is one that is very much tied to the idea of shaking off the influence of the giant to the north,” Rothkopf said. “And he’s essentially adopted a Trumpian lens through which to see the relationship…which translates to, ‘we don’t want you to call us out on our problem areas.’”

The number of migrant encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border climbed 71% in March, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data, making it the busiest month in nearly two decades. The April numbers, which have yet to be released, are expected to be even higher.

As the numbers swelled, Democrats and Republicans alike criticized overcrowded facilities where migrants are being held as officials scrambled to house them in sites large enough to accommodate COVID-19 restrictions.

In March, the U.S. struck a deal with Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala to tighten their borders and provide more troops to curb the tide of migrants. Mexico doubled the number of its detentions and has maintained a deployment of 10,000 security personnel at the border.

Biden has also revived a strategy he pursued as vice president: emphasizing a diplomatic approach by addressing the root causes driving migrants to leave their countries and head north. In remarks to the Conference on Americas this week, Harris outlined the root causes as corruption, violence, poverty as well as a lack of economic opportunity, climate resilience and good governance.

Biden is seeking $4 billion in aid to Central American countries over the next four years, funneling a majority of the money to community organizations rather than government officials to avoid concerns over endemic corruption. Harris announced $310 million in humanitarian relief and food aid for Northern Triangle countries during a virtual meeting with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei in April. Trump cut all foreign assistance to Northern Triangle countries in 2019.

The countries’ economies are deeply intertwined. In 2019, Mexico surpassed China as the United States’ top trading partner. More than $677 billion in goods and services flow back and forth annually – roughly $1.8 billion per day, according to the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

The United States buys roughly 80% of Mexico’s exports, accounting for about 39% of Mexico’s gross domestic product, according to a June report by the Congressional Research Service. The U.S. is also Mexico’s most important source of foreign direct investment, with $100.9 billion invested in 2019 largely in the manufacturing, finance and insurance sectors.

Meanwhile, Mexico buys more U.S.-made goods than any country after Canada.

Even with restrictions on “non-essential” travel at the U.S.-Mexico border, close family and cultural ties have meant frequent border crossings by U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents and those with work or student visas.

Immigration, which has emerged as an Achilles heel for Biden in his first months, gives Mexico leverage as AMLO looks to court the U.S. on foreign investment, more coronavirus vaccines and funding for the Mexican president’s own re-forestation program in exchange for an eventual six-month U.S. work visa.