MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said on Monday ahead of this week’s North American leaders’ summit that he would consider accepting more migrants than previously announced under President Joe Biden’s plan to deny people from four countries, who cross the border illegally. to the United States.
“We don’t want to prejudge things, but that’s part of what we’ll be talking about at the summit,” Lopez Obrador said. “We support such measures to give people a choice, an alternative,” he said, adding that “the number can be increased.”
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, warned that nothing had yet been decided.
“What we need is to see how the program announced last week works in practice, what if this program needs to be adjusted, and then we can talk about the next steps,” he said.
The comments came as a reflection of very sensitive migration talks that will be the focus of a two-day summit between Biden, López Obrador and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
All three countries are struggling to cope with the influx of people arriving in North America, as well as cracking down on smugglers who cash in on persuading migrants to make the dangerous trip to the US.
Other issues discussed include climate change, energy and supply chains.
Sullivan said on Monday the trip would be “a good opportunity for President Biden to deepen his personal engagement with President Lopez Obrador and Prime Minister Trudeau.”
Ahead of the summit, Biden announced major changes to immigration policy that were agreed with Mexico. Under the plan, the US will send back 30,000 migrants a month across the border from Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela from among those who entered the US illegally. Migrants from these four countries are not easily repatriated for a variety of reasons.
In addition, 30,000 people per month from these four countries who receive sponsorships, background checks and air travel to the US will be able to legally work in the country for two years.
Biden arrived in Mexico Sunday night via the new Felipe Angeles International Airport, a prized project by the Mexican president. The hub was named last year with fanfare, even though it’s more than an hour north of downtown, has few flights and, until recently, had no permanent drinking water.
The two leaders made the long drive downtown in Biden’s limousine. López Obrador was fascinated by the presidential car, known as the “beast”, and said Biden showed it to him.
“He himself showed me how the buttons work,” Lopez Obrador said.
The Mexican president described the two leaders’ first meeting on the trip as “very pleasant” and said that “President Biden is a friendly man.”
It was a particularly warm comment given that the men’s relationship was businesslike at best and lacked the warmth and camaraderie that Biden has with some other world leaders.
En route to Mexico, Biden stopped in El Paso, Texas, for four hours, his first trip to the border as president and the longest trip on the US-Mexico line. The visit was tightly controlled and appeared to be aimed at refuting Republican claims of a crisis by demonstrating a well-adjusted job of processing legal migrants, weeding out smuggling, and humanely treating those who entered illegally.
But the trip will likely do little to quell criticism from both sides, including immigrant supporters who accuse the Democratic president of pursuing a brutal policy not unlike that of his hardline Republican predecessor Donald Trump.
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.
López Obrador will formally welcome Biden at the National Palace later Monday, for the first time since Mexico hosted a U.S. president in 2014. The two leaders will meet together before a private dinner for all three leaders and their wives. Biden and Trudeau will have their own talks on Tuesday, and then the top three will meet for major summit discussions.
First Lady Jill Biden arrived in Mexico separately. On Monday, she met with women in education, the arts and business, most of whom are recipients of US collaborations or fellowships.
“Do what you want, but teach others,” she said, urging women to work together and support others.
For the US, the main topics for discussion at the summit 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.
The leaders of Canada and Mexico expressed concern about Biden’s “Buy American” plan. And while Biden’s push for electric vehicles is a boon to both US neighbors due to tax breaks on 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 than with Lopez Obrador, but he still hasn’t made it to Canada during his presidency, despite White House officials saying for months he planned to head north after the Americas summit in Los Angeles last fall.
López Obrador missed the California summit because Biden didn’t 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.
Despite the difficult relationship, they recognize each other’s importance, said Andrew Sely, head of the immigration think tank at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington.
“They are both consummate politicians,” he said. “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.
López Obrador has faced much criticism over the airport, which is expected to cost $4.1 billion and was built after he 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; Mark Stevenson of Mexico City and Chris Megerian and Josh Boak of Washington DC contributed to this report.