By ANTONIO GARZA, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico
On Monday, Jan. 9, and Tuesday, Jan. 10, U.S. President Joe Biden, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met in Mexico City for the North American Leaders’ Summit (NALS). While launched in 2005, this week marked only the 10th so-called “Three Amigos” summit.
With so many pressing issues on immigration, security and trade facing the region, the summit could not have come at a more crucial moment for trilateral relations. Despite modest expectations prior to the NALS and some tense moments, the three governments concluded their meetings on a largely positive note, announcing plans to work more closely on irregular migration, fentanyl trafficking and increasing investment in semiconductor supply chains.
López Obrador’s objective appeared to be keeping energy, democracy, as well as issues such as violence against journalists off the trilateral agenda. And going into the summit, the priority for Biden was to address irregular migration. Yet, significant bilateral migration announcements were made in the days before the summit, creating more space on the agenda for security and trade issues.
On Thursday, Jan. 5, Biden made his first major speech on border security, announcing new measures amid a record number of border crossings. Over the last year and a half, an increasing number of migrants arriving at the border are fleeing repressive regimes and deteriorating economic conditions in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. These nationals now make up more than half of the U.S. Custom and Border Protection encounters. This is a shift from past years, when Mexicans — and more recently Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans — made up the majority of apprehensions.
With the cooperation of Mexico, the Biden administration announced the expansion of the still-contested Title 42 policy to Haitians, Cubans and Nicaraguans, which will now allow U.S. authorities to swiftly return these nationals to Mexico. Simultaneously, the administration created a new legal pathway for up to 30,000 nationals from these countries per month, building upon the parole model created for Ukrainians and Venezuelans. Finally, the Biden administration plans to propose a transit rule, which would block certain individuals from requesting asylum.
In the wake of these announcements, Biden took his first visit to the border as president, on Monday, traveling to El Paso, Texas, to meet with local leaders, officials and humanitarian workers.
On the security front, just days before the summit, Mexican authorities captured Ovidio Guzmán, the son of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán and a notorious fentanyl trafficker wanted by U.S. authorities. Yet, Ovidio Guzmán’s extradition to the United States has been halted by a Mexican judge.
While in Mexico City, the Biden administration sought to broaden Mexico’s support in curbing the flow of fentanyl, which is now the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18 to 49. Some initial steps were announced at the summit, such as increased information sharing on the chemicals used to manufacture fentanyl. This should build on the progress that Mexico has made to increase fentanyl seizures and expand the chemical watchlist.
At the summit, the three countries also committed to cooperating more closely on other security issues, including labor and sexual trafficking, advancing on nuclear security collaboration and sharing intel on cyber security best practices.
Trade tensions had been mounting in the months leading up to the summit. Little progress has been made on the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) complaint filed by the United States and Canada last July asserting that López Obrador’s energy policies favored state-run companies. It was clear that Mexico did not want to discuss energy matters publicly at the NALS. Officials failed to make any announcements, suggesting an arbitration panel may be imminent.
At the NALS, there were several other key trade disputes in the background. First, the United States has considered filing a formal USCMA complaint against Mexico’s proposed ban on genetically modified corn, though Mexico has agreed to delay the ban until 2025. And second, a decision on another USCMA dispute against the United States on automobile rules of origin was announced on Wednesday, Jan 11, favoring Mexico and Canada.
On the heels of the World Bank lowering its economic growth projection for this year, all three leaders came into the summit wanting to appear committed to efforts to make the region more competitive. The governments announced plans to increase investment in semiconductor manufacturing, including establishing a trilateral forum and coordinating on supply-chain mapping. The United States will also work with Mexico to finance an ambitious solar energy project in the state of Sonora.
While this year’s North American Leaders Summit was more than a photo op, there remain some very real challenges that will need to be addressed in the coming months. Moving forward, the three countries would greatly benefit from formally incorporating the private sector into their discussions on trade and competitiveness. This will be key to ensure continuity beyond election cycles.
ANTONIO GARZA is a U.S. lawyer who served as his country’s ambassador to Mexico between 2002 and 2009. In recognition of his work, in 2009, the Mexican government bestowed on him the Águila Azteca, the highest award granted to foreigners. Prior to his appointment as ambassador, Garza served as Texas’ secretary of State from January 1995 to November 1997 and was also chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission. He is currently a lawyer at White & Case, specializing in cross-border issues. He is also currently a director at both Kansas City Southern and MoneyGram.