Biden will have the opportunity during his meeting with the Mexican president
While they have hosted several virtual gatherings and high-level U.S. officials visited Mexico recently, this first face-to-face meeting will give Biden an opportunity to revisit his disastrous immigration policy. From day one of his administration, he dominated his approach to Mexico.
Although discussions on other issues – trade, investment, drugs, security – have taken place at high levels, migration has put everything else on the back burner. The same thing more or less happened under the Trump administration: With the exception of the new trade deal, labeled USMCA, former President Donald Trump put immigration at the top of his list, when he dealt with US-Mexican relations, to the exclusion of almost everything else.
Therefore, Biden did not want to publicly challenge López Obrador on domestic issues in Mexico, which – due to the intensity of relations between the two countries – are rather all intermestic.
As long as Mexico runs Washington’s migration bidding, keeping Americans of Central and South American descent from reaching the southern border of the United States, Biden is looking away from other issues. These include the mismanagement of its economy by Mexico; lack of rule of law; Corruption; violations or threats of USMCA energy, investment, and agriculture provisions; fight against drugs; regional issues such as the elections in Nicaragua and the protests in Cuba; and the consolidation of democracy and human rights in Mexico.
Paradoxically, AMLO’s policies only made Biden’s predicament worse: by mismanaging his country, the Mexican president created new incentives for Mexicans to migrate to the United States.
The apprehensions of Mexicans have been increasing for three years now, and one of the reasons is López Obrador. AMLO is sinking the Mexican economy into the ground, through a mistaken reluctance to implement any fiscal stimulus during the pandemic (which it also botched), a mistakenly designed electric power reform, and the lack of any tax reform. It creates new incentives for Mexicans to migrate, especially at a time when the labor shortage in the United States is increasing. Push and pull factors are driving more Mexicans to head north.
Herein lies the great opportunity for the two leaders to reach a far-reaching agreement on immigration. López Obrador has rightly insisted that Washington dramatically increase the number of temporary work visas it offers. Economic stagnation in Mexico, a US economy facing labor shortages in virtually all occupational categories, and an impending boom in infrastructure construction clearly justify such increases. These would automatically reduce the pressure from unauthorized migrants entering the United States, essentially allowing many of them to enter through fully legal gates.
But beyond this short-term remedy (which could affect hundreds of thousands of migrants), Biden should devise a different approach towards Mexico.
First, it should not be based almost exclusively on immigration, as important as it may be for both countries. Second, it should clearly include issues that are of great importance to the United States, but which López Obrador mistakenly views as strictly domestic Mexican affairs. It means democracy, human rights, macroeconomic policy, the rule of law, energy reform, and regional affairs such as the current crises in Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba.
It also means reaching some sort of understanding with Mexico on drug policy and violence, beyond friendships on reducing homicides in Mexico and strengthening cooperation. Primarily, it involves doing all of this in a much more public way than so far.
Washington should follow a two-pronged approach to Mexico, similar to the one it has taken for China and Russia. As with these two countries – with China being more important to Washington than Mexico, Russia less – it should engage, negotiate and make deals wherever possible, but speak out on issues on which the two countries not only disagree, but increasingly disagree chances. Biden has not shied away from publicly denouncing human rights violations by the governments of Beijing and Moscow, while also cooperating with them on critical issues such as climate change.
Nothing would hurt America’s long-term interests in Mexico as much as instability; every administration in Mexico since Woodrow Wilson knows it. The country is at least as politically sensitive to the United States as Russia and China. If Biden doubts it, he should review his polls on immigration and border management.