Editor’s Note: Jorge G. Castañeda was Mexico’s foreign minister from 2000 to 2003. He is a professor at New York University. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
On Thursday in Washington, Presidents Joe Biden and Andrés Manuel López Obrador will meet for the first time in person since 2012, when neither of the two had their current jobs.
While they have held several virtual encounters, and high-level American officials have traveled to Mexico recently, this first face-to-face meeting will give Biden an opportunity to review his disastrous immigration policy. From day one of his administration, it has dominated his approach toward Mexico.
Although discussions on other issues – trade, investment, drugs, security – have taken place at high levels, migration has pushed everything else to a back burner. The same thing happened under the Trump administration, more or less: With the exception of the new trade agreement, labeled USMCA, former President Donald Trump put immigration at the top of his list, when it came to US-Mexico relations, to the exclusion of almost everything else.
Biden’s dismal poll numbers on immigration and Republicans’ unforgiving attacks on his handling of the border have led the American President to depend almost entirely on Mexico to help him sort out the immigration mess. Only Mexico can at least partially keep Central Americans, Haitians, Cubans, Venezuelans, Ecuadorians and Brazilians from the US border, even if by doing so it mistreats them or places them in squalid camps along its side of the US-Mexican border.
Consequently, Biden has been unwilling to call out López Obrador publicly on domestic issues in Mexico, which – because of the intensity of the relationship between the two countries – are all, rather, intermestic.
As long as Mexico does Washington’s bidding on migration, keeping Central and South Americans from reaching the US southern border, Biden looks the other way on other matters. These include Mexico’s mishandling of its economy; the absence of the rule of law; corruption; violations or threats to USMCA provisions on energy, investment and agriculture; drug enforcement; regional issues such as elections in Nicaragua and protests in Cuba; and the consolidation of democracy and human rights in Mexico.
Paradoxically, AMLO’s policies have only compounded Biden’s predicament: By mismanaging his country, the Mexican President has created new incentives for Mexicans to migrate to the United States.
The migration-only approach has not worked. For fiscal 2021, American authorities carried out more than 1.7 million border apprehensions, the highest total ever recorded. The number for September was the highest for that month since at least 2000; October dipped slightly, largely because fewer Haitians attempted to enter the United States, but the figure was still much greater than for any October in decades. More than a third of those apprehended are Mexican, far more than nationals of any other country, and most are single adults. This is no coincidence.
Apprehensions of Mexicans have been rising for three years now, and one of the reasons is López Obrador. AMLO is driving the Mexican economy into the ground, through a misconceived reluctance to implement any fiscal stimulus during the pandemic (which he also botched), mistakenly designed electric power reform, and the absence of any tax reform. He is generating further incentives for Mexicans to migrate, especially at a time when labor scarcities in the United States are growing. Both push and pull factors are driving more Mexicans to head north.
Herein lies the great opportunity for both leaders to reach a far-ranging agreement on immigration. López Obrador has rightly insisted that Washington should significantly increase the number of temporary work visas it offers. Economic stagnation in Mexico, a US economy facing labor shortages in practically every occupational category, and an imminent infrastructure construction boom plainly justify such increases. These would automatically diminish the pressure of unauthorized migrants entering the United States, essentially allowing many of them to enter through fully legal doors.
But beyond this short-term remedy (that could affect hundreds of thousands of migrants), Biden should design a different approach toward Mexico.
First, it should not be based almost exclusively on immigration, as important as it may be to both countries. Second, it should clearly include issues that are of great import to the United States, but which López Obrador wrongly considers as strictly internal Mexican affairs. This means democracy, human rights, macro-economic policy, the rule of law, energy reform and regional affairs such as the current crises in Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba.
For example, instead of pressuring Mexico to impose visas on Venezuelan refugees seeking to travel to the United States (as the Biden administration reportedly has done), it should persuade Mexico not to welcome Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro, whose regime forces those Venezuelans to leave their country.
It also means reaching some kind of understanding with Mexico on drug-policy and violence, beyond bromides about reducing homicides in Mexico and enhancing cooperation. Mainly, it implies doing all of this in a much more public manner than until now.
Washington should follow a two-track approach to Mexico, not dissimilar to the one it has adopted for China and Russia. As with these two countries – China being more important for Washington than Mexico, Russia less so – it should engage, negotiate and reach agreements where possible, but speak out on those issues where the two countries not only disagree, but are increasingly at odds. Biden has not hesitated to publicly decry human rights violations by the governments in Beijing and Moscow, while simultaneously cooperating with them on decisive issues such as climate change.
López Obrador is totally indifferent to private American criticism; he shrugs it off as unwarranted interference in his country’s domestic affairs. But he is extremely sensitive to public statements, whether undiplomatic and unfortunate (as in Trump’s case), or more careful (as in Biden’s). He knows that the United States represents the only obstacle to his populist, harebrained, so-called “Fourth Transformation” of Mexico.
Nothing would harm long-term American interests in Mexico as much as instability; every administration in Mexico since Woodrow Wilson has known this. The country is at least as politically delicate for the United States as Russia and China. If Biden doubts this, he should look at his poll numbers on handling immigration and the border.