WASHINGTON — It’s been a big week for U.S.-Mexico relations, and that was even before President Joe Biden becomes the first U.S. leader to visit Mexico in nearly a decade.
In the lead-up to that trip, Biden announced a major border policy shift, with Mexico’s blessing, that will result in the United States sending 30,000 migrants from four other countries per month back across the border. In Mexico, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s security forces nabbed one of the sons of imprisoned former Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, touching off violence that left 30 dead and dozens injured. The son, Ovidio Guzmán, is a reputed drug trafficker wanted by the United States.
The two presidents, along with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, will gather in Mexico City on Monday and Tuesday for a North American leaders summit. Even with progress on the migration issue, there is much to discuss: climate change, manufacturing, trade, the economy and the potential global clout of a more collaborative North America.
Biden arrives at the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City on Monday afternoon and the presidents will meet before Trudeau joins them for dinner. Biden and Trudeau will hold talks Tuesday and then the three will gather for discussions. It will be the first time since 2014 that Mexico has hosted a U.S. president.
Biden hopes to use the summit “to keep driving North America’s economic competitiveness and help promote inclusive growth and prosperity,” said National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.
For the U.S., the major talking points are migration, drug trafficking and building on Biden’s push on electric vehicles and manufacturing.
Lopez Obrador is focused on economic integration for North America, supporting the poor in the Americas and regional relationships that put all governments on equal footing.
The U.S. and Mexico are expected to continue discussions about ending a dispute over U.S. corn after Mexico announced it would ban imports of genetically modified corn. In addition, Mexico is seeking money to boost solar energy projects.
As for Canada, the goal is simply “to carve some attention and space in this summit,” said Louise Blais, a longtime Canadian diplomat.
Mexico sees the event as a chance to advance its economic interests.
It stands to benefit as U.S. companies reconsider their relationships with China after supply chain disruptions, coronavirus outbreaks and changes in federal policy. Both Mexico’s proximity to the U.S. and existing trade agreements would be incentives for American factories to relocate south of the border. The U.S. imported more than $380 billion worth of goods from Mexico through the first 10 months of 2022 — the third-largest source of imports after China and the European Union, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Canada is the fourth-largest U.S. partner by imports, with the State Department calling it “the world’s most comprehensive trading relationship.” The U.S. and Canada are each other’s largest market for exports, and Canada is the largest foreign supplier of energy products to the U.S.
The U.S., Mexico and Canada are already in a long-standing trade agreement that was updated in 2020. When U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai met last month with Mexico’s secretary of the economy, Raquel Buenrostro, they discussed further economic integration as well as energy, fisheries and the trade agreement’s ban on importing goods made by forced labor — a subject that is among the tensions with China.
Analysts at Bank of America estimated in October that Mexico could increase its trade by as much as 30% if more supply chains returned to North America. Their report notes there had already been a bump in Mexican manufacturing as U.S. policymakers and businesses increasingly focus on bringing more trade to allied countries that are near American consumers.
“Every country is arriving with different priorities, but there is common ground,” said Enrique Perret, managing director of the U.S.-Mexico Foundation, a think tank focused on cooperation between the two nations. “It’s competitiveness, it’s economy, it’s education, it’s labor mobility.”
But it’s not all rosy.
The leaders of Canada and Mexico have voiced concerns over Biden’s “Buy America” plan. And while Biden’s push toward electric vehicles is a boon to both nations because of the tax credits for North American batteries, there’s concern the U.S. allies will be left behind.
Meantime, the U.S. and Canada accuse López Obrador of trying to favor Mexico’s state-owned utility over power plants built by foreign and private investors, something that is forbidden under the three countries’ free trade pact.
The leaders did meet in Washington last November, but until then, there hadn’t been a summit in five years and many of the current disputes have festered despite constant discussion. They include fentanyl trafficking, corn production, automobile rules of origin and Mexican energy laws.
“These topics are really complicated issues and they will not be solved in a two-day summit,” said Carin Zissis of the Americas Society, a nonprofit dedicated to education, debate and dialogue in the Americas.
The chemistry between Biden and Lopez Obrador is tricky, too. Their relationship is highly transactional and absent any of the warmth and camaraderie Biden has with other world leaders.
Lopez Obrador has made no secret of his admiration of Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump. Lopez Obrador did not recognize Biden’s election victory from November 2020 until after the formal Electoral College vote a month later.
Biden has raised concerns over security and drug trafficking in Mexico and the deaths of journalists there. The U.S. took issue with Lopez Obrador for boycotting the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles last year over Biden’s decision not to invite the leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Biden plans to stop in El Paso, Texas, on Sunday for his first visit as president to the U.S.-Mexico border, just days after announcing that the U.S. will immediately begin turning away Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans who illegally cross into the U.S. from Mexico. The new policy is an effort to manage the spiraling numbers of migrants arriving at the border.
Mexico agreed each month to take 30,000 Cubans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans and Haitians who walk or swim to the U.S. and are turned back, and the U.S. each month will offer 30,000 people from those four nations work permits for two years and a legal path if they come to the U.S. by plane, have eligible sponsors and pass background checks. People from those four countries now make up the most migrants crossing the border.
Biden’s attempt to tackle border security issues has drawn considerable criticism from immigrant advocates and refugee rights groups ,who say the changes are inhumane and reminiscent of Trump’s hard-line approach.