AMLO and Biden are facing a migration challenge of historic proportions


Since he took office in 2018, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has reactivated coal plants, halted new renewable energy projects and dismissed wind farms as ugly “fans” that muck up the landscape. As part of his quest for “energy sovereignty,” he has spent billions building a state-owned oil refinery and has pushed legislation that would require Mexico’s electric company to take more power from state-run plants, which are fueled largely by crude oil and coal.

López Obrador’s energy policies couldn’t be more different from those of President Biden, who has pushed for historic investments in clean energy and is seeking to wean the nation and world off fossil fuels.

But when the two leaders meet in person for the first time as presidents on Thursday in Washington, Biden may not be in a position to press his counterpart to address climate change, no matter how central it is to his agenda. That’s because Biden’s desperately counting on López Obrador’s cooperation in reducing migration to the United States, which has become a recurring challenge for his administration.

The U.S. and Mexico are in the final stages of negotiating the reinstatement of the so-called Remain in Mexico program, under which asylum seekers are housed in camps on the southern side of the countries’ border while they wait for immigration proceedings.

“Biden doesn’t want any problems with Mexico because what really matters to him is migration, and he needs to make sure that Mexico continues to cooperate on the migration front,” said Pamela Starr, a professor of international relations at USC who has advised diplomats from both countries in the past. “He doesn’t want to call Mexico out.”

The politics of energy and migration are just two of the most consequential and vexing issues facing López Obrador and Biden as they meet at the White House as part of the North American Leaders’ Summit, which Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is also attending. President Trump didn’t convene a meeting of the three countries — sometimes known as the “three amigos” — during his four years in office, but Biden has tried to rejuvenate diplomatic relationships since taking office.

Although López Obrador, who is frequently referred to by his initials AMLO, and Biden are considered economic leftists, their politics diverge from there.

Biden has tried to reestablish the U.S. as an international leader and has sought to restore a certain decorum to his country’s highest office, pledging to “make America respected again.”

President Biden stands at a lectern at a car factory.
President Biden speaks during a visit to the General Motors Factory ZERO electric vehicle assembly plant on Wednesday in Michigan. (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

López Obrador, however, can be just as pugnacious as Trump, publicly clashing with journalists, feminists and anybody else who deigns to criticize him. He’s prioritized his domestic agenda over international affairs, leaving Mexico only twice before this week’s trip to Washington.

Similar to Trump’s frequent rages against the “deep state,” López Obrador has portrayed himself as a champion of the people facing off with the “mafia of power.” The Mexican president has also brushed aside norms and undermined checks on his power, moves that critics allege have undermined Mexican democracy.

“He has a very particular worldview, and I don’t think he aligns with President Biden,” said Ben Rohrbaugh, a member of President Obama’s National Security Council, where he worked on border issues with Mexico. “I don’t suspect they see eye to eye on much.”

One of the sharpest contrasts is on energy. López Obrador grew up in the oil-rich state of Tabasco and is nostalgic for a time when the state oil company Pemex drove national economic growth. His policies have attempted to roll back a constitutional reform instituted in 2013 by his predecessor that opened the door to more foreign involvement in the Mexican economy by ending state monopolies.

Such actions have stunted Mexico’s renewable energy sector because it has relied heavily on funding from the foreign firms, which are under assault by López Obrador’s populist government. Meanwhile, state-run energy companies, which rely heavily on coal and crude oil, are charging ahead.

Environmentalists warn that López Obrador’s unapologetic embrace of fossil fuels will make it impossible for Mexico to meet its emission reduction commitments under the Paris climate agreement. Multiple U.S. officials have accused AMLO’s energy policies of unfairly favoring Mexico’s state companies.

Lisa Viscidi, an energy expert at the U.S.-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue, said any kind of breakthrough is unlikely.

“The Trump administration before and the Biden administration over the past year has criticized both in private conversations and in public the direction that things are going on energy policy,” Viscidi said. “And [López Obrador] is only digging his heels in further and further consolidating this policy. So far, it doesn’t seem to have any effect at all.”

López Obrador said at a Wednesday news conference that he would defend his energy policies to Biden and Trudeau if challenged by them.

“It’s very simple,” he said. “What we want is for the price of electricity to be maintained while ending the abuses of private companies.”

Adults and children stand on the side of a dusty road.
Border Patrol agents detain Central American migrants in Texas this year. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

In addition to energy policy and climate change, the three leaders are expected to discuss the response to COVID-19, regional competitiveness and migration. López Obrador has indicated that he will push the U.S. and Canada to offer more work visas to Mexican agricultural workers.

Biden will probably continue to press Mexico to do more to help the U.S. respond to an influx of migrants at the U.S.-Mexican border.

Biden pledged to turn the page on Trump’s harsh immigration policies, but has left many Trump-era policies in place.

His administration is still enforcing Title 42, a law that permits U.S. officials to prohibit migrants from entering the U.S. during a public health crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. And although Biden ditched the Remain in Mexico policy, a federal judge ordered him to restart it.

The Biden administration said in a court filing this week that it’s prepared to enforce the rule once Mexico “makes an independent decision” to accept migrants who are awaiting immigration proceedings.

The two countries have “made significant progress and are close to finalizing the discussions,” but there is “one set of outstanding issues that must be resolved,” the Biden administration said in the filing. Mexican officials have said in the past that they would agree to accept migrants back into their country only if they were guaranteed access to attorneys.

The meeting between Biden and López Obrador comes amid tense talks between the two nations about security cooperations, particularly those targeting drug cartels. Mexican and U.S. authorities had cooperated for years on such matters, but their relationship reached a near breaking point with the 2020 arrest of retired Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos on drug trafficking charges at Los Angeles International Airport.

After intense lobbying by Mexican diplomats, the charges against Cienfuegos, who had spent six years as the country’s defense minister, were dropped, and he was allowed to return home. López Obrador promptly announced that Cienfuegos would not face charges in Mexico and accused the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration of fabricating the case against him. His party pushed for a new security law that has since limited U.S. anti-drug operations in Mexico.

At the same time, López Obrador has been pushing to overhaul a multibillion-dollar bilateral agreement known as the Mérida Initiative, a 13-year-old joint effort to fight drug trafficking, share military intelligence and improve Mexico’s judiciary and law enforcement agencies. Under the agreement, the U.S. government provided Mexico with helicopters, planes and equipment as the countries focused their attention on targeting the leaders of drug cartels.

But that strategy failed to reduce the quantity of drugs crossing the border and sparked record levels of homicides and kidnappings in Mexico. López Obrador has said the policy helped turn Mexico into a graveyard.

U.S. and Mexican officials are in the midst of negotiating a new agreement. The U.S. has pledged that it will focus less on fortifying the Mexican military and more on a holistic approach to public safety, one that targets gun traffickers and their financial networks, while also investing in drug treatment programs.

Original story appeared in Los Angeles Times

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