Vice President Kamala Harris on Tuesday met with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, an important ally who’s been critical of the Biden administration’s immigration policies, and said the two nations are “embarking on a new era.”
Harris met with López Obrador – known by his initials as AMLO – at Palacio Nacional, or the National Palace, and will meet with female entrepreneurs and labor leaders as she looks to deepen diplomatic ties with Mexico as part of the administration’s broader strategy to address underlying causes of migration from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Before the two leaders’ meeting, Harris told López Obrador that she’s “enjoyed our many conversations, but I have most enjoyed being able to see you and talk with you in person.” She said the United States and Mexico “have a long-standing relationship” that is “based on families,” “shared borders” and “a shared history.”
Harris and López Obrador witnessed the signing of a memorandum that establishes a strategic partnership between their countries to cooperate on development programs in the Northern Triangle.
After the signing, López Obrador and Harris took questions by “The History of Mexico,” a mural by Diego Rivera.
Asked whether Mexico would increase border security, López Obrador said, “We are very pleased to have her here, and we will touch on that subject but always addressing the fundamental root causes.”
Harris said Monday nightthat she would emphasize the neighboring countries’ “long-standing” partnership” in addressing “Mexico’s role as it relates to the region.”
In recent weeks, Harris has spoken with López Obrador several times and held a virtual meeting with him in early May as she sought early commitments on stemming the flow of migrants at the U.S.-Mexican border. Symone Sanders, Harris’ chief spokesperson, said the vice president would use the bilateral meeting to “build on that progress” and discuss the shared priorities of economic development, security cooperation and curbing irregular migration from Central America.
Greater cooperation in Central America
Ricardo Zuniga, the State Department’s special envoy to the Northern Triangle, said the memorandum signed Tuesday was an important step as the USA and Mexico are “both destination countries” and share some of the same issues around migration.
“It’s very important to show that the United States and Mexico are collaborating and trying to improve conditions on the ground among our neighbors, because of the importance that other countries in Central America have for both of us,” he said.
Harris traveled to Mexico City after the country held midterm elections Sunday, in which López Obrador’s Morena party, along with two smaller allied parties, won the majority in Mexico’s lower chamber of Congress, according to early results. The party fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to push through controversial aspects of the president’s nationalist agenda.
López Obrador and President Joe Biden got off to a rocky start. The Mexican president, who developed a friendship with President Donald Trump, was one of the last foreign leaders to congratulate Biden for winning the 2020 election and, more important to Harris’ visit, blamed Biden for the increase in migrants coming to the border. López Obrador accused the United States of interventionism for giving money to an anti-corruption group critical of his government – just before a call with Harris.
Monday, Harris visited Guatemala, where she met with President Alejandro Giammattei to discuss ways to improve living conditions to “give people a sense of hope” for a better future. Harris issued a stark warning to those looking to illegally migrate to the USA: “Do not come. Do not come,” she said. “I believe If you come to our border, you will be turned back.”
Underscoring one of the themes of the trip, the Biden administration announced a series of initiatives to tackle corruption, drug smuggling and human trafficking. The vice president announced a program to promote economic opportunities for Guatemalan women and girls.
Harris brings anti-corruption message
Harris emphasized the administration’s commitment to battle corruption during a news conference Monday with Giammattei, who bristled when asked about allegations that he’s cracked down on critics and meddled in the selection of judges on the country’s Constitutional Court. He denied the allegations.
The vice president said corruption was “the No. 1 issue aside from vaccines and the pandemic” in her discussions in Guatemala.
In Mexico, at least 91 politicians – including 36 candidates and aspiring candidates – were killed before the elections Sunday, underscoring violent conditions that drive migrants from their homes.
Sen. Clemente Castañeda, national coordinator for Mexico’s Movimiento Ciudadano political party, told USA TODAY he thinks Harris faces a “big challenge” in trying to persuade López Obrador to commit to U.S. priorities such as fighting corruption, protecting human rights and empowering women.
“These are not priorities of the current government,” Castañeda told USA TODAY from Guanajuato a day after his party’s candidate for mayor of Moroleón was killed May 25.
Castañeda said he hopes Harris raises the militarization of Mexico’s northern and southern borders, which he said has led to poor treatment of Central American migrants.
As part of a regional strategy to curb migration, Mexico agreed to deploy 10,000 troops to its southern border in April. Harris aides said the vice president and López Obrador will discuss stepping up enforcement at Mexico’s northern and southern borders.
“We believe that migration is a human right, particularly when people are facing violence and economic stagnation,” Castañeda said. “What we would like is to support a regional approach and alliance to design economic and development policies that will encourage vulnerable people to stay in their homelands.”
The U.S. southern border will be a focal point of Harris’ discussions as she seeks cooperation on a politically fraught issue that’s dogged the Biden administration in its first months. Republicans have criticized Biden and Harris for declining to visit the border. The vice president said Monday she made her first foreign trip to Guatemala to address the reasons migrants flee their countries, a strategy that “is tangible and has real results.”
“I will continue to be focused on that kind of work as opposed to grand gestures,” she said.
The USA has faced a historic increase of migrants, many from Central America and Mexico, showing up at the southern border. In April, Border Patrol officials encountered 178,622 migrants, a slight increase from March that notched the highest level of apprehensions since April 2000.
Duncan Wood, senior adviser to the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, said one of the main goals of Harris’ trip to Mexico is to “build a positive, constructive relationship” with López Obrador and his government.
Wood said the United States and Mexico will need to address trade conflicts, Mexico’s energy sector, corruption, organized crime and drugs. This year, the State Department released its annual human rights report, which warned of Mexico’s gang violence and limits on media freedoms. It criticized conditions in the country’s prison and detention centers.
“They’re very much right now in that phase of a relationship of getting to know each other and building trust,” Wood said. “Further down the road, we’ll get to the point where Harris and other folks from the U.S. government can apply more pressure on Mexico on different themes.”
Before the high-profile meeting, López Obrador said Mexico would receive 1 million excess COVID-19 vaccine doses. The Biden administration announced Monday that it would release 25 million surplus doses to countries in need. Harris said she expects vaccine sharing to be on the agenda.
Activists called for Harris to use the meeting to reverse a controversial policy that allows Customs and Border Protection to expel undocumented migrants to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in holding facilities. The Trump-era policy, known as Title 42, remains in place as the Biden administration grapple with the uptick in migrants at the border, but immigration advocates contend it’s no longer necessary as COVID-19 restrictions are eased.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday she “doesn’t have any sense of the timeline” on when the Biden administration will lift the policy.