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In Mexico, Biden Looks for Help With Migrants and Stronger Partnership

MEXICO CITY — President Biden was under growing political pressure Monday to confront the surge of undocumented migrants at the southern border as he began two days of diplomacy in Mexico City intended to secure more help from Mexico to stem the tide of people fleeing toward the United States.

Mr. Biden is also looking for more cooperation from Mexico in the fight against drug trafficking, and for the resolution of a dispute over the Mexican government’s financial support for its energy industries. He began those conversations on Monday evening with a one-on-one meeting with the country’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the second time that the two leaders have met in person since Mr. Biden took office two years ago.

In remarks before his meeting, Mr. Biden said that the United States and Mexico “have to continue to build and contribute to democratic institutions in the hemisphere.” Both countries, he said, are “at one of those inflection points.”

Officials on both sides of the border have set modest goals for the North American Leaders Summit between Mr. Biden, Mr. López Obrador and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada. No agreements are expected on immigration, for instance, only commitments to work in that direction.

But officials also said that specific deals at the short gathering were less important than a broader mission: cementing the return of a North American partnership based on cooperation and shared interests rather than the intimidation and conflict that marked the Trump years.

It has been three and a half years since President Donald J. Trump threatened Mexico with far-reaching tariffs and nearly five years since Mr. Trump angrily tore up an agreement with the Group of 7 countries during a summit in Canada. Now, with Mr. Biden as president, officials in all three countries say a stronger relationship is vital to improving supply chains and weathering economic headwinds.

“A larger economic vision of North America that involves high labor standards, better environmental standards and as much positively reinforcing economic activity as possible,” was how Jake Sullivan, the administration’s national security adviser, described what Mr. Biden hopes to accomplish at the summit.

Migrants near the Rio Grande on Sunday as the Texas National Guard guarded the border.Credit…Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The New York Times

“That allows the United States to be the manufacturing powerhouse that President Biden has talked about, but also is a win-win for Mexico and Canada, and reduces our dependencies on other countries and other parts of the world who don’t necessarily share the same values that we share with our partners here in North America,” Mr. Sullivan said.

The lack of specific, aggressive action items has frustrated some business leaders in the United States, who said there are economic disputes between the three countries that need to be resolved soon.

“It’s not sufficient for leaders to get just together,” said Myron Brilliant, the Executive Vice President and head of international for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “It’s important that we see action and transformational change in the way that governments work with the private sector.”

Still, confronting migration is at the top of the agenda for the leaders here, according to officials with all three governments, even if major policy announcements are unlikely. Talks on migration are constant, with a U.S. official saying that Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken is in regular touch with Mexico’s foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard.

The pandemic and the war in Ukraine continue to wreak havoc on global supply chains. Inflation and political instability have produced a hunger crisis of extreme proportions in Latin America and the Caribbean. And the mass movement of people across the hemisphere continues to challenge governments throughout the Americas.

Mr. Biden has been under fire at home from Democrats and Republicans to deal with record numbers of migrants at the southwest border. Last week, the Biden administration said Mexico had agreed to accept a significant increase, to 30,000 per month, in the number of migrants being swiftly expelled by the United States.

Mr. Biden visiting the border in El Paso on Sunday.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

The United States will now deny people from Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Haiti the chance to apply for asylum, and swiftly return them to Mexico. American officials said on Monday that Mr. Biden might press his Mexican counterpart to accept even more migrants from other countries in the future, as the Western Hemisphere is convulsed by one of the largest mass migrations in the region in decades.

The Mexican government, along with and immigrant advocates in the United States, has denounced a policy the Biden administration proposed last week that would make asylum very difficult to obtain for migrants arriving from a “safe third country,” usually Mexico, without first seeking refuge there. On Saturday, Roberto Velasco, the Mexican Foreign Ministry’s chief officer for North America, called the idea “a red line for us” because it could mean far more migrants in Mexico.

Mexico has not asked the United States for any financial support to deal with the influx of migrants, believing that doing so would limit the country’s autonomy. But Mr. López Obrador is facing political pressures of his own inside Mexico, where some are frustrated by the large number of migrants from elsewhere in the region.

While announcing that it is cracking down on asylum claims, the Biden administration also said it would open more pathways for people to migrate legally to the United States — a change Mexico had been seeking.

“Obviously it also decreases the pressure on our own systems and our own country in terms of these very large flows of people that we’ve been seeing in the past years,” Mr. Velasco said.

Undocumented migrants, outside an El Paso church where many have been staying, protesting Mr. Biden’s visit on Sunday.Credit…Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The New York Times

White House officials said Mr. Biden was also determined to address the issue of illegal drug smuggling, especially the vast flow of the drug fentanyl from Mexico into the United States.

There has been growing concern among U.S. officials about a decline in security cooperation with Mexico in recent years. In October 2020, without notifying the Mexican government, U.S. agents arrested a former Mexican secretary of defense after he got off a plane in Los Angeles, accusing him of working on behalf of a drug cartel.

The move infuriated the Mexican military and prompted so much outrage within Mr. López Obrador’s government that the American authorities eventually released the official and returned him to Mexico.

But the fallout continued.

Mexico delayed for months the granting of visas to several agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration and moved to make it harder for agents already in the country to operate normally. A law passed at the end of 2020 required foreign agents to share information with the Mexican government and removed their diplomatic immunity.

Mr. López Obrador, meanwhile, has presided over one of the most violent periods in Mexico’s recent history.

While the country’s government last week arrested Ovidio Guzmán López — the son of the infamous drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo — Mr. López Obrador has removed fewer drug cartel chiefs and has done less to dismantle organized criminal groups than his predecessors, analysts say.

“The Mexican government is not making it a priority to crack down on the supply side of the drug problem,” said David Shirk, director of the Justice in Mexico program at the University of San Diego.

Mexicans soldiers during an operation to arrest Ovidio Guzmán López, son of the drug lord known as El Chapo, last week.Credit…Juan Carlos Cruz/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Mr. Sullivan said that Mr. Biden had “some confidence” that by the end of the summit on Tuesday, he would have secured a commitment from Mr. Lopez Obrador “for stronger cooperation on the fentanyl issue.”

During their meeting on Monday, the two presidents also began potentially tense conversations about trade conflicts between their countries that still loom large.

Mr. Biden confronted Mr. López Obrador about steps the Mexican president has taken to strengthen the dominance of Mexico’s two main state-owned energy companies — the Federal Electricity Commission, or CFE, and the oil and gas company Pemex. Executives of American energy companies believe that the Mexican actions put American companies at a disadvantage in ways not allowed under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a free-trade pact that was signed two years ago.

Mr. Sullivan said on Monday that the administration could decide to formalize its complaints against Mexico if an agreement is not reached by the two leaders this week.

“We think consultations have helped clarify both the nature of U.S. concerns and have identified some potential pathways forward,” he said. “But we’re not there yet.”

Canada has joined the United States in protesting Mexico’s energy policies, even as it has increased investments in Mexico in recent years. But experts say that Canada enjoys little leverage over Mexico, and officials said Mr. Trudeau was expected to tread lightly in pressing Canada’s economic interests at the summit.

Reporting was contributed by Steve Fisher in Mexico City, Norimitsu Onishi in Montreal and Ana Swanson in Washington.

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