MEXICO. Perhaps one of President Joe Biden’s most important diplomatic decisions at this week’s meeting of North American leaders was his choice of airport.
Biden arrived in Mexico City Sunday via Mexico’s newest hub, Felipe Angeles International Airport, a prized project of Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador. The hub was named last year with great fanfare, although it is more than an hour north of the city center, has few flights and until recently had no permanent drinking water.
Biden and López Obrador, whose relationship is business-like at best and lacks the warmth and camaraderie that Biden has with other world leaders, shook hands and walked down a long red carpet on tarmac together, escorted by soldiers. They then made a long trip to the city center together.
Along with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who will arrive on Monday, the trio will spend the next two days discussing migration, climate change, manufacturing, trade, the economy and the potential global impact of a more cooperative North America.
“This meeting will deepen our coordination and advance our shared priorities for North America,” Biden tweeted.
Before the summit, Biden, with the blessing of Mexico, announced major changes to US-Mexico border policy. The United States will send back across the border at 30,000 migrants a month from four other countries – from among those who entered the United States illegally. For those who entered legally, the US will host 30,000 people per month from those four countries – Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela – for two years and offer legal work opportunities.
On Sunday, Biden spent four hours in El Paso, Texas, his first trip to the border as president and the longest trip on the US-Mexico line. The day was tightly controlled and seemed intended to demonstrate the smooth running of processing migrants who entered legally, weeding out smuggled contraband, and humanely treating those who entered illegally, creating a counter-narrative to Republican claims of a crisis situation equivalent to an open border.
But that has likely done little to quell critics on both sides, including immigrant advocates who accuse the Democratic president of pursuing a brutal policy not unlike that of his hardline Republican predecessor Donald Trump.
Biden did not encounter migrants, except when his motorcade passed along the border, and about a dozen lined up on the Ciudad Juarez side of Mexico. His visit did not include time at a border patrol post where migrants who cross the border illegally are arrested and detained until they are released.
Elsewhere in El Paso, where Biden was not, hundreds of migrants gathered outside the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where they slept outdoors and received three meals a day from religious groups and other humanitarian organizations.
There were several pregnant women in the migrant group, including Carla Sainz, 26, who is eight months old. She traveled in a small group that included her two-year-old son Joshua. Sainz left her three children at home in Venezuela with her mother.
“I would ask President Biden to help me with a permit or something so that we can work and continue,” she said.
Noengris Garcia, also eight months pregnant, was traveling with her husband, teenage son and family dog from the tiny state of Portugues, Venezuela, where she ran a food stall.
“We don’t want to be given money or a house,” Garcia, 39, said. “We just want to work.”
Asked what he learned from seeing the border with his own eyes and talking to the officers working on it, Biden said: “They need a lot of resources. We’ll get it for them.”
The number of migrants crossing the US-Mexico border has skyrocketed in Biden’s first two years in office. During the year ending September 30, there were over 2.38 million stops, the first time the number had exceeded 2 million. The administration has struggled to close the crossings, unwilling to take measures that would resemble those of the Trump administration.
From Texas, Biden headed south to Mexico City. López Obrador will officially welcome Biden at the National Palace on Monday, the first time Mexico has hosted a U.S. president since 2014. The two will meet before Trudeau joins them for dinner. Biden and Trudeau will hold talks on Tuesday, and then the three will meet to discuss.
For the US, the main topics of discussion are migration, drug trafficking and the development of Biden’s push for electric cars and manufacturing. Mexico is focused on the economic integration of North America, support for the poor in America, and regional relations that put all governments on an equal footing. Canada is looking to expand environmental initiatives.
Although the three countries are working together, not everything is so rosy. The leaders of Canada and Mexico expressed concern about Biden’s “Buy American” plan. And while Biden’s move toward electric vehicles is a boon for both countries due to tax breaks for North American batteries, there are fears that US allies will be left behind.
Meanwhile, the US and Canada accuse López Obrador of trying to favor Mexico’s state-owned utility over power plants built by foreign and private investors, which is prohibited by the free trade agreement between the three countries.
Biden’s relationship with Trudeau is warmer, but he still hasn’t made it to Canada during his presidency, despite White House officials saying for months that he planned to head north after meeting in Los Angeles last fall.
López Obrador missed this meeting because Biden did not invite the authoritarian regimes of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. He also made no secret of his admiration for Trump. And he was one of three world leaders who did not recognize Biden’s election victory until the formal Electoral College vote and the Jan. 6 uprising in the US Capitol. But despite this, each of them recognizes the importance of the other.
“They are both consummate politicians,” Andrew Seli, head of the immigration think tank Migration Policy Institute in Washington, said of Biden and Lopez Obrador. “They are looking for what the other person needs and trying to figure out what they need. It’s very transactional. There is no big vision of the relationship right now.”
For Biden, that meant flying to a new airport, one of four key projects Lopez Obrador is rushing to complete before his term expires next year as Mexico denies re-election. Other projects include an oil refinery, a tourist train in the Yucatan Peninsula, and a train linking the Gulf Coast and Pacific seaports.
The airport was expected to cost $4.1 billion and was built after López Obrador canceled a partially built airport created by his predecessor. During the construction of Felipe Angeles in 2020, hundreds of mammoth skeletons were discovered.
Associated Press contributors Andres Layton in El Paso, Texas; Anita Snow in Phoenix; Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Josh Boak of Washington contributed to this report.