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Biden and Mexico's López Obrador find common cause on migration after a rocky start

President Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador found common ground in talks on migration, the economy and fentanyl interdiction.
Fernando Llano
/
AP
President Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador found common ground in talks on migration, the economy and fentanyl interdiction.

Updated January 10, 2023 at 9:01 PM ET

MEXICO CITY — Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador may have been one of the last world leaders to congratulate President Biden when he took office, but two days of talks have helped lead to a U-turn in what was at first an uneasy relationship.

The leaders found common ground on migration, economic integration, and fentanyl interdiction. López Obrador, who is known for being recalcitrant, ended their meetings with nothing but praise for Biden, particularly on issues surrounding migration across the border separating their countries.

"You are the first president of the United States in a very long time who has not built even one meter of wall. We thank you for that, sir," said López Obrador, lauding Biden as "a man with conviction" at the end of the North American Leaders' Summit.

It was a significant shift in tone, said Rafael Fernández de Castro, director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at University of California San Diego.

"The personal relationship of Biden and López Obrador is going full circle, from being kind of distant two years ago, with AMLO taking a long time to recognize Biden and congratulate him, to now that he fully embraced him in a very cordial and political way," Fernández de Castro said.

The thaw comes in the wake of a new program that Biden announced before his trip that will allow as many as 30,000 migrants from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Haiti to temporarily live and work in the United States, providing they apply for asylum from outside the country, among other conditions.

López Obrador praised the program, and encouraged Biden to work with Congress on a pathway to citizenship for Mexican people who have lived in worked in the United States for years after crossing the border illegally.

President Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador leave for a long motorcade ride after Air Force One landed at Felipe Angeles International Airport on Jan. 8.
Claudio Cruz / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador leave for a long motorcade ride after Air Force One landed at Felipe Angeles International Airport on Jan. 8.

Biden has made up for lost face time with López Obrador on this trip

López Obrador chose to boycott a big regional summit hosted by Biden in Los Angeles last summer. An Oval Office meeting last summer saw the leftist leader hit on some politically touchy issues, like U.S. gasoline prices.

Biden, who puts a lot of stock in developing personal relationships with world leaders, has spent far less time with López Obrador than with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has worked with Biden on issues at the G-7 and G-20, and joined the leaders in Mexico City.

The White House took pains on this trip to accommodate one of López Obrador's domestic political issues, landing Air Force One at Felipe Ángeles International Airport instead of the more convenient and central Benito Juárez International Airport.

López Obrador was there to greet Biden on the tarmac.

Biden "had the opportunity to ride with President López Obrador from the airport back into town, which gave them the chance to just have a one-on-one chat on kind of how they're seeing the world right now, what's on their minds," Biden's national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters. "I think they both got a lot out of it," he said.

President Biden and members of his cabinet listen as Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks during a meeting at the National Palace in Mexico City.
Andrew Harnik / AP
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AP
President Biden and members of his cabinet listen as Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks during a meeting at the National Palace in Mexico City.

Their Mexico City meetings got off to an awkward start

Biden's talks had a bumpy start to talks on Monday when what were supposed to be some brief opening pleasantries devolved into a contentious debate over the history of U.S. support for Latin America.

López Obrador told Biden that the United States had done little to support development in Latin America since President John F. Kennedy's "Alliance for Progress" spending in the early 1960s.

"This has been the only important thing, really, that has been done in terms of cooperation for development in our continent in more than half a century," said López Obrador.

"This is the moment for us to determine to do away with this abandonment, this disdain and this forgetfulness for Latin America and the Caribbean," he said.

Biden took issue with that, noting that the U.S. government has spent "tens of billions of dollars in the hemisphere" over the past 15 years. "The United States provides more foreign aid than every other country, just about combined, in the world — to not just the hemisphere, but around the world," Biden told López Obrador.

"Unfortunately, our response just doesn't end in the Western hemisphere: it's in central Europe. It's in Asia. It's in the Middle East. It's in Africa," he said. "I wish we could just have one focus."

President Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador arrive at the National Palace in Mexico City on Jan. 9.
Andrew Harnik / AP
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AP
President Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador arrive at the National Palace in Mexico City on Jan. 9.

The shadow of Trump loomed over the meetings

The Mexico City meeting marked the first visit by a U.S. leader to the country since former President Barack Obama's last visit in 2014.

Former President Donald Trump largely abandoned regular summits with Mexico and Canada amid fights over trade and migration.

In remarks at the end of the summit, Biden described migration levels in the hemisphere as being "unprecedented" and noted he had stopped in El Paso, Texas before the meeting — a city that has struggled with large numbers of migrants.

"We cannot wall ourselves off from shared problems," Biden said, alluding to Trump's signature border wall project.

Canada's Trudeau also referenced Trump's tariffs and trade policies, without naming him.

"People remember what happened just a few years ago when the certainty of this partnership was in question," Trudeau said. "Investors, businesses, workers and citizens all worried what would happen," he said, noting that "free and fair trade won."

Trudeau said it was important for the three countries to work together on the economy in the face of global uncertainty, a rise in authoritarian leaders, and an increase in the cost of living.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Tamara Keith
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.