MEXICO CITY — Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador said Monday in the leadup to this week’s summit of North American leaders that he would consider accepting more migrants than previously announced under President Joe Biden’s plan to turn away people from four nations who cross illegally into the United States.
“We don’t want to anticipate things, but this is part of what we are going to talk about at the summit,” López Obrador said. “We support this type of measures, to give people options, alternatives,” he said, adding that “the numbers may be increased.”
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, cautioned that nothing was decided yet.
“What we need is to see how the program announced last week works in practice, what if any adjustments need to be made to that program and then we can talk about taking the next steps,” he said.
The comments were a reflection of the highly sensitive negotiations about migration, which will be a central issue during the two-day summit involving Biden, López Obrador and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
All three nations are struggling to handle an influx of people arriving in North America, as well as crack down on smugglers who profit from persuading migrants to make the dangerous trip to the U.S.
Other issues on the table include climate change, energy and supply chains.
Sullivan said Monday the trip would be “a good opportunity for President Biden to deepen his personal engagement with President López Obrador and Prime Minister Trudeau.”
Ahead of the summit, Biden announced a major shift in migration policy, which had been negotiated with Mexico. Under the plan, the U.S. will send 30,000 migrants per month from Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela back across the border from among those who entered the U.S. illegally. Migrants who arrive from those four countries are not easily returned to their home countries for a variety of reasons.
In addition, 30,000 people per month from those four nations who get sponsors, background checks and an airline flight to the U.S. will get the ability to work legally in the country for two years.
Biden arrived in Mexico on Sunday night via the new Felipe Angeles International Airport, a prized project of the Mexican president. The hub was christened last year with fanfare, though it’s more than an hour’s drive north of the city center, has few flights and until recently lacked consistent drinking water.
The two leaders took the long drive into the city center in Biden’s limousine. López Obrador was fascinated by the presidential vehicle known as “the beast,” and said Biden showed it off to him.
“He himself showed me how the buttons work,” Lopez Obrador said.
The Mexican president described the two leaders’ first encounter of the trip as “very pleasant,” and he said “President Biden is a friendly person.”
It was a notably warm comment given that the men’s relationship has been merely transactional at best and absent the warmth and camaraderie Biden has with some other world leaders.
On his way to Mexico, Biden stopped in El Paso, Texas, for four hours — his first trip to the border as president and the longest he’s spent along the U.S-Mexico line. The visit was highly controlled and seemed designed to counter Republican claims of a crisis situation by showcasing a smooth operation to process migrants entering legally, weed out smuggled contraband and humanely treat those who’ve entered illegally.
But the trip was likely to do little to quell critics from both sides, including immigrant advocates who accuse the Democratic president of establishing cruel policies not unlike those of his hardline predecessor, Republican Donald Trump.
The number of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border has risen dramatically during Biden’s first two years in office. There were more than 2.38 million stops during the year that ended Sept. 30, the first time the number topped 2 million.
López Obrador will formally welcome Biden at the Palacio Nacional later Monday, the first time since 2014 that Mexico has hosted a U.S. president. The two leaders will meet together ahead of a private dinner for all three leaders and their wives. Biden and Trudeau will hold their own talks Tuesday, and then the three leaders will gather for the main summit discussions.
First lady Jill Biden arrived separately in Mexico. On Monday, she met with women from the fields of education, art and business, most of them recipients of U.S. cooperation programs or scholarships.
“Do whatever you want but teach others,” she said as she encouraged the women to work together and support others.
For the U.S., the major summit talking points are migration, drug trafficking and building on Biden’s push on electric vehicles and manufacturing. Mexico is focused on economic integration for North America, supporting the poor in the Americas and regional relationships that put all governments on equal footing. Canada is looking to expand on green initiatives.
The leaders of Canada and Mexico have voiced concerns over Biden’s “Buy American” plan. And while Biden’s push toward electric vehicles is a boon to both U.S. neighbors 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’s forbidden under the three countries’ free trade pact.
Biden’s relationship with Trudeau is warmer than with Lopez Obrador, but he still hasn’t made it to Canada during his presidency, despite White House officials saying for months he planned to head north following a summit of the Americas in Los Angeles last fall.
López Obrador skipped the California summit because Biden didn’t invite the authoritarian regimes of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. He’s also made no secret of his admiration for Trump. And he was one of only three world leaders who didn’t recognize Biden’s election victory until after the formal Electoral College vote and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Despite the fraught relationship, they recognize each other’s importance, said Andrew Selee, head of the immigration think tank Migration Policy Institute in Washington.
“They are both consummate politicians,” he said. “They’re looking for what the other person needs, and they’re trying to make clear what they need. It’s very transactional. There isn’t a big vision for the relationship right now.”
For Biden, that meant flying into the new airport, one of four keystone projects López Obrador is racing to finish before his term ends next year, as Mexico doesn’t allow reelection. The other projects are an oil refinery, a tourist train in the Yucatan Peninsula and a train linking Gulf coast and Pacific seaports.
López Obrador has faced much criticism over the airport that is expected to cost $4.1 billion and was built after he canceled the partly constructed airport created by his predecessor. During construction of Felipe Angeles in 2020, hundreds of mammoth skeletons were uncovered.