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Biden makes first Mexico visit amid concerns over migration, fentanyl

MEXICO CITY — President Biden is embarking on the first visit to Mexico by an American president in nine years, a trip that comes at a moment of surging trade but growing U.S. concerns over irregular migration and a historic number of deaths from drug overdoses.

On the eve of Monday’s summit, Biden and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador projected an image of camaraderie riding together in the U.S. leader’s limousine from the airport into the Mexican capital. In recent days, the Mexican leader provided crucial support for two of Washington’s priorities — signing on to a U.S. plan that will send more border-crossers back into Mexico, and capturing Ovidio Guzmán, an alleged fentanyl kingpin and the son of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán.

For all the good will on display, though, there is considerable friction between the neighbors. The Mexican president, a longtime leftist icon popularly known as AMLO, has adopted nationalist energy policies that have triggered a major fight with his partners in the North American free-trade agreement. Washington has also lobbied López Obrador to alter his policies favoring fossil fuels over green energy.

Andrew Rudman, director of the Mexican Institute at the Wilson Center, said that in recent decades, “U.S. and Mexican presidents always shared a common vision of the way the world was supposed to be,” particularly on economic issues like free trade. “AMLO doesn’t share that view.”

Monday’s bilateral meeting will be followed by a “Three Amigos” summit on Tuesday including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The session is expected to include discussions on trade and how to strengthen North American supply chains as manufacturers shift production from China due to political tensions and fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

First lady Jill Biden joined her husband on the trip but was expected to pursue her own activities focused on U.S.-Mexico cultural connections and women’s empowerment. Her schedule included an event Monday with Mexican students involved in an NFL flag-football program that promotes gender equality for girls.

President Biden has sought to broaden the relationship with Mexico beyond migration, the overwhelming focus during the Trump administration. Yet Biden’s trip to the border on Sunday before the summit — his first since becoming president — signified how the subject has become a top concern and a political liability as he prepares to seek reelection next year.

Republicans have criticized Biden for the surge in border apprehensions — which jumped to 1.7 million during his first year in the White House and soared to nearly 2.4 million in his second year. Although last week’s vote for a House speaker exposed divisions among congressional Republicans, the party is largely united around using its new majority to press the administration on its immigration policies.

Biden’s visit to Mexico is the first of what could ultimately be more than a half-dozen international trips in 2023, a ramped-up schedule that reflects an increased focus on foreign affairs as a divided Congress makes legislating less likely.

Biden’s new border security measures include the expansion of programs to remove people quickly without letting them seek asylum and an agreement with Mexico to accept the return of tens of thousands of Cubans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans and Haitians who cross the border into the United States without authorization.

López Obrador has emerged as a crucial U.S. ally on migration. In the first 11 months of 2022, his government detained 388,611 migrants from Central America and other regions, more than double the number in all of 2019, his first full year in office.

Some analysts have suggested that in response, Biden has soft-pedaled other issues. Human rights groups and congressional Democrats have urged him to press López Obrador on his increasing use of the Mexican military for traditionally civilian-led tasks, and his efforts to rein in political institutions created as part of Mexico’s transition to democracy in the 1990s.

Roberto Velasco, a senior Foreign Ministry official, denied Mexico sought any quid pro quo for the new U.S. agreement. Mexico supported it to “have migration that happens in a way that is orderly, that is safe, that is regular,” he said in an interview. He noted that a similar, earlier accord that would allow 24,000 Venezuelans to seek U.S. asylum — but funnel into Mexico others who had crossed the border without authorization — resulted in a dramatic drop in apprehensions.

López Obrador’s biggest public request in the run-up to Biden’s visit was that the U.S. leader’s plane land at the recently opened Felipe Ángeles airport. Opposition politicians have accused López Obrador of wasting billions of dollars by constructing the military-run facility instead of finishing another partially built airport that he had alleged was tainted by corruption.

“This isn’t a question of logistics, it’s a political issue,” López Obrador said of his request to Biden, adding that his critics would exploit any snub of the little-used airport, located far from downtown Mexico City.

Luis Rubio, a political analyst, said the Mexican leader viewed the issue as “a way of consolidating his political position” as he tries to ensure his party wins the 2024 presidential election.

In addition to immigration, drug interdiction is expected to be a dominant issue in Monday’s summit.

Aides to Biden have argued that, even in a deeply divided Congress, progress can be made on the fentanyl crisis that has led to tens of thousands of overdose deaths. With much of the deadly substance trafficked into the United States from Mexico, Biden faces bipartisan pressure to crack down on drug smuggling.

Former president Donald Trump, who is running to deny Biden a second term, released a video statement Thursday pledging to cooperate with Mexico so that “the drug kingpins and vicious traffickers will never sleep soundly again.”

An administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations, said Biden’s White House has worked closely with Mexico “to seize record levels of fentanyl” and arrest smugglers.

Yet Mexico has found few labs where the narcotic is made. U.S. officials have urged Mexico to increase its security spending, which is among the lowest of countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. For its part, Mexico is urging the United States to crack down on the illegal export of guns, which have fueled historic levels of criminal violence in this country.

The summit occurs as bilateral trade is surging, thanks in part to U.S. companies transferring factories to Mexico from China due to political tensions and shipping delays. U.S.-Mexico trade increased by 19 percent in the first 11 months of 2022, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.

U.S. business organizations worry that such “near-shoring” could be constrained by López Obrador’s policies favoring state-run energy companies over private investment. The United States and Canada have filed a formal complaint that those policies violate the North American trade agreement, launching a process that could lead to sanctions against Mexico. López Obrador says his energy decisions reflect Mexican sovereignty.

Barack Obama was the last U.S. president to visit Mexico, attending a meeting in 2014 with the two other North American heads of government. The meeting, colloquially known as the Three Amigos summit, did not take place during Trump’s term, as he harangued Mexico and Canada over trade and other issues.

Amanda Coletta in Toronto contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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