A Pressing Agenda for AMLO and Biden
By EARL ANTHONY WAYNE, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico
When U.S. President Joe Biden and Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) sit down together in Washington on Tuesday, July 12, they will face a tough set of challenges that defy easy solutions.
Yet, the leaders can send clear signals of good intentions for their respective administration to work more closely together and produce better results on the most pressing issues in the months ahead.
Top of the list is the need to better manage the migration flows, which continue to grow. Once again, increased numbers of Mexicans are seeking to enter the United States irregularly, after over a decade of declining numbers. Both governments need to adjust strategies to address this shift, with an urgent need for a much more detailed plan to cooperate on humanely managing migrant flows from Mexico, Central America and elsewhere. This must include serious commitment to building regional cooperation as addressed at the Summit of the Americas.
Both the United States and Mexico will need to invest more in more effective programs and processes to make a qualitative leap in handling the situation. Steps must also be taken to adjust to the elimination of the Remain in Mexico program, the expected end of expulsions justified by the pandemic, and to crack down on profitable and dangerous migrant smuggling. Biden will continue to face sharp criticism from Republicans on these issues, as well as from progressives in his own party. He needs Mexico as a partner in forging a way ahead.
Regarding cross-border crime, one can hope the two leaders will send clear signals that they want results that save lives on both sides of the border and overcome the mistrust that developed in recent years. Too many Americans are dying of overdoses from Mexican-sourced drugs, and too many Mexicans are dying and Mexican communities suffering from drug cartel incited violence and crime. Much action is needed by both governments to tackle these problems in ways that rebuild trust. Mexico should adjust recent laws and practices that severely limit cooperation on investigations in Mexico. Both leaders could also help by making the clear commitment to build a 21st century border with the facilities and technology to reduce illicit trafficking in both directions while facilitating legitimate commerce and travel.
On trade and economic issues, the million-dollar-a-minute commercial relationship supports millions of jobs in both countries. We can expect discussions about working together on managing inflation’s negative impacts and can hope the leaders will signal a commitment to resolve quickly trade differences, particularly those related to Mexico’s energy policies and regulatory practices, which have generated significant criticism from the private sector and U.S. legislators.
Biden and AMLO should also urge their teams to show solid progress in implementing lessons learned during the pandemic, such as building more resilient supply chain and bolstering cooperation across North America to improve the prospects for sustained economic wellbeing in an increasingly turbulent global market place, as they agreed at the North American Leaders Summit.
Importantly, concerns about the state of human rights and democracy in Mexico are growing, and AMLO’s refusal to attend the Los Angeles summit unless Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua were invited sparked more U.S. congressional criticism. However, AMLO tried to limit the damage by sending his foreign relations secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, to participate constructively in the summit. Ebrard even joined U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly in a strong joint statement about close cooperation on a range of international issues.
It is not clear if or how the leaders will broach these sensitive issues on July 12. However, despite differences of perspective and policy, too much is at stake for the United States and Mexico to not find ways to cooperate on key issues.
Almost 80 percent of Mexico’s exports go to the United States, providing for some 39 percent of Mexico’s GDP. Those exports accounted for most of Mexico’s economic growth over the past year, pulling the country out of its pandemic recession, and most new investment was aimed at the U.S. market. Record remittances sent back home by Mexicans in the United States also underscore how fundamental U.S. economic ties are for Mexico.
Biden knows the importance of Mexico from his work as vice president overseeing relations with Mexico and Central America, which included dealing with surging migration flows and cross-border crime. Cooperation on migration, cross-border crime and border management had all deteriorated by the time Biden came to office in 2021.
Biden and his team set out quickly to mend relations with Mexico and reestablish mechanisms to promote cooperation and problem solving on economic issues, the border, migration and crime. By early 2022, the bilateral mechanisms were in place to start producing better results.
Regarding cross-border crime, illegal smuggling of opioids from Mexico was the leading source of a record 106,000 U.S. drug overdose deaths, while Mexico is also the major provider of illegal meth. The United States and Mexico reached agreement in January on a comprehensive set of objectives for anti-crime cooperation, but there have not yet been clear results from implementing those agreed goals, particularly in reducing deadly fentanyl flows from Mexico. Criminal groups remain deeply entrenched. Analysts express skepticism about the Mexican government’s public security policies. Mexico’s insecurity is highlighted in U.S. travel advisories.
The persistent flows of illegal migrants into the United States were highlighted by the recent tragic deaths in Texas from a smuggling operation gone bad. Most of the dead were Mexican, reflecting an increase of Mexicans crossing the border irregularly and thus the need for heightened action by Mexican authorities. Republicans, sharply critical of the Biden administration’s border migration policies, will make it a campaign issue for the fall 2022 elections, as recent actions by Texas Governor Greg Abbott underscore. Mexico must be a closer and better partner, if the Biden administration is to improve migration management.
Trade ministers have worked hard to implement the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) over the last year. At the USMCA’s second anniversary in July 2022, trade across North America has surpassed pre-pandemic levels. There is good cooperation in many areas, including on labor issues, but there is still much to do to achieve the USMCA’s potential. Important U.S.-Mexico trade problems need solutions. When trade ministers met on Friday, July 8, the United States flagged serious concerns about Mexican policies and practices related to energy, biotech agriculture and the treatment of U.S. companies. The United States is urging Mexico to resolve energy disputes with U.S. companies and encouraging it to adopt more climate-friendly energy policies. The United States has so far restrained from filing USMCA dispute settlement complaints in these areas, despite some very unhappy U.S. companies.
More broadly, many argue that Mexico is discouraging an advantageous growth- producing wave of nearshoring investment, because of the AMLO administration’s unwelcoming approach, while other countries, such as Vietnam, are attracting significant investment. The United States and Mexico re-established a High-Level Economic Dialogue in 2021 to help address related issues as strengthening supply chains and border facilities and processes to facilitate trade. Concrete results could boost both economies.
EARL ANTHONY WAYNE, a career diplomat, is a Distinguished Diplomat in Residence at American University, a Public Policy Fellow and a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Argentina and Mexico.