President Biden held talks on Friday with Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador as a looming deadline to lift COVID-related restrictions at the US southern border magnified concerns over the administration’s immigration policies and an increase in illegal border crossings.
The conversation — which lasted 52 minutes and touched on cooperation over migration, energy, security and economic growth — comes at the end of a tough week for the White House.
The administration faces mounting criticism over its plans to end so-called Title 42 authority, a public health order allowing border agents to expel asylum seekers to Mexico. The policy was enacted during the Trump administration to curb the spread of COVID-19.
The Biden administration says the use of Title 42 was never intended to be permanent and the policy is being eased along with other pandemic-related restrictions.
“The majority of the conversation was about migration and was about continued work on coordination, economic coordination, on taking steps to reduce migration to the border, and they have been a partner in that over the last several months,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at a press briefing following the call.
Psaki said the tone of the call was “constructive” but declined to say whether Biden asked López Obrador, frequently referred to by his initials AMLO, to increase Mexican troops at the border once Title 42 is lifted.
Earlier this week a federal judge halted the Department of Homeland Security’s plans to suspend the order on May 23 while a growing number of Democrats up for reelection have joined Republicans in criticizing the administration’s plans to wind down the policy. Republicans grilled Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas on Capitol Hill over a record number of border crossings that resulted in 210,000 arrests in March, the highest monthly total in two decades.
Biden has struggled to strike a balance on immigration, fulfilling campaign promises to his party’s progressive wing while appeasing the concerns of centrists about illegal border crossings. Republicans have been hammering Democrats on the issue ahead of November’s midterm elections.
After calls from some Democrats to produce a more detailed plan to replace Title 42, the Department of Homeland Security released a 20-page memo Tuesday laying out a six-point strategy that includes sending more personnel to the border, fast-tracking procedures for those who don’t qualify for asylum and expanding temporary detention facilities along the border.
Encouraging Mexico to cooperate in handling an increase in border crossings once Title 42 is lifted was to be a top agenda item in the president’s call with López Obrador, according to a senior Biden administration official.
“We really will need to rely on our partnership more than ever to have a coordinated response, to surge additional staff and resources on both sides of our border to make sure that we have an orderly and humane response,” said the official, speaking to Reporters on condition of anonymity in advance of Biden’s conversation.
While grappling with Title 42, the White House has also sought to terminate a Trump-era policy known as “Remain in Mexico,” which requires asylum seekers, a majority from Central and South America, to stay in Mexico while their cases are being considered . The Supreme Court heard oral arguments earlier this week on whether the administration can scrap the program.
The two leaders were also expected to lay out their vision for the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles in June. The US will host leaders from North, South and Central America, as well as the Caribbean, for the ninth summit.
Asked if Biden planned to visit the US southern border ahead of the summit, Psaki said, “We’re certainly open to it.”
The two leaders last met in person in November on the heels of the announcement of a Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health and Safe Communities agreement between their countries. But tensions have since surfaced over the leaders’ differences on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Mexico has condemned Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, but AMLO refused to join the US and other countries in imposing economic sanctions on Russia for its continued assault.
The two countries have also clashed over Mexico’s planned energy reforms, in which López Obrador has sought to consolidate state control of Mexico’s electric power market in a potential violation of the United States-Mexico-Canada trade pact.
A senior administration official said the administration has concerned about the potential negative impact of Mexico’s energy reforms on US private investment in Mexico and is working to resolve the disputes.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.