MEXICO CITY – As the United States faces record numbers of migrants crossing the southern border and with fentanyl overdoses claiming American lives, all eyes will be on President Joe Biden this week as he meets with the leaders of Mexico and Canada for the North American Leaders’ Summit.
Biden’s meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau comes a day after the president stopped to visit the border in El Paso, Texas, where scores of migrants are wandering the streets homeless while local officials strapped for cash struggle to tackle a growing crisis.
All the while, Biden will be watched closely by House Republicans who have waited two years to take on Biden’s immigration policies and have plans to bring Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas up to Capitol Hill to answer the new majority’s questions.
The meeting between the three leaders also comes as the United States is seeking to repair relations. Biden’s relationship with Mexico, in particular, has faced several hiccups over the past year after López Obrador skipped out on the Summit of the Americas last yearand has continued flirting with Russia even as Putin’s war in Ukraine nears the year mark.
Roberta Jacobson, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico who served as Biden’s coordinator for the southwest border on the National Security Council early in the administration, said this will be a moment for Biden to show how much work has gone into rebuilding the relationship between both countries.
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“With all of its warts, this relationship is actually in a somewhat better place than a lot of people think,” Jacobson told USA TODAY. “There are a lot of things that the two governments are working on of great importance to the United States.”
But with migration, fentanyl, threats to democracy and climate change – especially since once-climate leader López Obrador turned to buying coal – stakes remain high for the commander in chief.
With record levels of migrants, many coming from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Haiti and Cuba, coming to the U.S.-Mexico border, immigration will be top of mind in the meetings between Biden and López Obrador.
Although Mexico had previously deployed national guard troops to the country’s southern border to help process migrants coming from Guatemala, the two leaders will likely continue to discuss more efforts Mexico can take to stop migrants from coming to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said Mexico’s current strategy has not stemmed the flow of migrants.
According to Customs and Border Protection data, officials had 233,740 encounters of migrants in November 2022 on the southwest border.
“If the Biden administration thought that it was in any way getting Mexico’s cooperation, the numbers do not show it,” Payan said. “So clearly, they’re going to have to talk about that and they’re going to have to talk about whether Mexico is serious about immigration or not.”
Ahead of the summit in Mexico City, Biden announced a new parole program for individuals from Nicaragua, Haiti and Cuba who are trying to seek asylum in the United States.
As part of the announcement, Biden noted that Mexico would accept 30,000 Nicaraguans, Haitians and Cubans per month – something the government had not been doing following surges of those nationalities to the border.
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The plan indicates that Mexico is willing to work with the United States to help address migration issues.
The leaders could likely discuss the capacity of each country’s asylum systems, as well as how to better process people to help them find their path forward in the asylum process for either country, said Shannon O’Neil, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Mexico’s role in immigration has become larger as it is now also a destination country for people seeking asylum, said Jacobson.
“Mexico is not just a sending or a transit country anymore, but also a destination country,” Jacobson said. “In some ways, I think the three countries have more in common on migration than ever before.”
Stopping the flow of fentanyl
With widespread fears in the United States of accidental overdose because of fentanyl, the White House has said addressing the deadly drug will be among the top priorities during the summit.
“It’s a killer. It’s a flat killer,” Biden said of the drug Thursday.
In 2021, more than 71,000 Americans died of overdose deaths from synthetic opioids – mostly involving fentanyl, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Arturo Sarukhán, a former Mexican ambassador to the U.S., said the recent arrest of drug trafficker Ovidio Guzmán, the son of infamous Sinaloa drug lord known as “El Chapo,” signaled that Mexico was willing to talk about addressing fentanyl flowing from Mexico to the United States.
The arrest of Guzmán sparked violence, with gunfights spurred across the Culiacan, the capital city of the state of Sinaloa.
“I think that Biden will certainly want to ensure that Lopez Obrador’s paradigm for public security is not allowing organized crime to continue to grow and multiply which has been the case during the past three years,” Sarukhán said.
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Both the United States and Mexico are facing presidential elections next year. And the state of democracy will likely be on the agenda between those two countries.
Mexico in December passed an “electoral reform” law that would make elections less safe in the country. The law comes months after Biden touted democracy at Summit of the Americas last summer.
With both countries facing elections in the coming year, the topic may be on the agenda, said María Fernanda Bozmoski, deputy director of programs at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.
Energy and trade
As the United States tries to make moves on electrical vehicle production and promoting clean energy, the topic may be a point of contention among the three leaders.
Under the López Obrador, Mexico has been backsliding on green energy goals, turning to use of coal and petroleum. Biden and Trudeau will likely touch on how Mexico is going to promote green energy going forward, said Earl Anthony Wayne, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico.
In addition, Canada and the United States are going to have to decide whether to go to a dispute settlement panel under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) for favoring its state-owned energy suppliers. USMCA is a free trade treaty that was passed under the Trump administration.
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“They’ve been negotiating intensely with the Mexicans to see if they can find a solution,” Wayne said. “And the U.S. is going to have to make a decision as to whether there is a solution possible.”
There may also be a dispute between the three countries over treatment of cars and vehicles under USMCA.
Mexico and Canada have argued the United States is not applying what was agreed into how you treat autos and cars vehicles under the USMCA. The two countries called for a dispute settlement panel, where they argued that more vehicles should be considered for duty-free shipping.
“The question will be will the United States accept that decision if it’s negative?” Wayne said. “It’s very important that we find solutions to all these differences that come up … because it’s important for the credibility of our trading relationship.”
Reach Rebecca Morin at Twitter @RebeccaMorin_