Immigrants defend AMLO and pressure Biden on immigration policy at Summit of the Americas in L.A.

Activists take part in a pro-immigration rally at Pershing Square in Los Angeles.
Activists take part in a pro-immigration rally at Pershing Square in Los Angeles on Thursday during the Summit of the Americas.
(James Carbone)

“President AMLO, here are your people!” a cluster of Mexican immigrants shouted. “We love you, AMLO,” one poster declared.

In fact, Mexico’s populist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, universally known as AMLO, had not, and will not, set foot in Los Angeles this week. He is boycotting the Summit of the Americas, a cause of no small aggravation to the Biden administration leading up to the five-day gathering of Latin American heads of state that wraps up on Friday.

But that didn’t stop a number of AMLO’s supporters, the majority of them Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants, from turning out in downtown L.A. to show their devotion.


“The love for AMLO is international, because of his principles and his humanism,” said Jorge Magallanes, 46, who carried seven colored signs with different messages expressing his support for López Obrador.

The demonstration, which started at noon at Pershing Square, was organized by AMLO enthusiasts as well as organizations pressing President Biden to place the issue of immigration reform at the center of his administration’s agenda.

Biden flew into Los Angeles on Wednesday to formally open the summit by extolling democracy throughout the hemisphere, while downplaying tensions stemming from the White House’s decision to exclude the leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua from the event. That diplomatic snub set off a counterwave that led to AMLO and other leaders deciding to boycott the event themselves.

At the march, which gradually made its way to the Convention Center, the flags of the United States, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela waved, mixed with posters in English and Spanish urging Biden to lower immigration barriers. During his presidential campaign, Biden had pledged to introduce an immigration reform package aimed at the nation’s 12 million immigrants without legal status during his first 100 days in the Oval Office.

But that promise quickly bogged down, falling victim largely to partisan politics, and is stalled in Congress.

“Our main demand is an immigration reform with a path to citizenship,” said Juan José Gutiérrez, president of Vamos Unidos USA. Without such reform, Gutiérrez stressed, it would be impossible to combat the so-called root causes of migration in the countries of Central America’s Northern Triangle: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.


But other demonstrators expressed dismay that AMLO had chosen to skip the summit in sympathy with excluded autocrats such as Nayib Bukele of El Salvador and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua.

“The president’s decision to support authoritarian governments is unacceptable. It makes us look bad as Mexicans who live in the United States,” lamented Francisco Moreno, president of the Council of Mexican Federations. “López Obrador wanted to overshadow the summit by feeling himself to be the patron saint of authoritarian governments.”

According to the Pew Research Center, more than 40 million immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua live in the United States. In 2020, even in the midst of a global pandemic, these nations together received $65.4 billion in remittances sent by U.S. relatives. In 2021, the total was $83.9 billion.

Those financial ties make some Latin immigrants wish their homelands’ leaders hadn’t defied the United States in order to signal solidarity with next-door nations.

“I hoped that President Xiomara Castro would not sweat someone else’s fever,” said Cecilia Rodríguez, president of the Honduran Alliance of Los Angeles. “It is an opportunity that she has missed.”

In recent years, diplomatic relations have soured between Washington and Central American countries, while China has asserted its growing economic influence in the region.


Ricardo Valencia, a professor at Cal State Fullerton, said that El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have given up lobbying the Biden administration on the issue of immigration reform.

“The three countries have renounced being defenders of their citizens within the United States. They have left them totally alone, trusting in what the U.S. congressmen do on this issue,” Valencia said.

Yet the absence of heads of state including Bukele, Castro, Ortega and Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala worries organizations that push for human rights, freedom of information, transparency and accountability, in part because the authoritarian traits of these governments have fueled migration.

“Bukele does not like to be accountable to the population or the media. The least he would like to do is expose himself to the cameras,” said Wilson Sandoval, coordinator of the Center for Legal Anti-Corruption Advice of the National Foundation for Development of El Salvador.

Elizabeth Kennedy, a specialist on Central America at the Washington Office on Latin America, said, “If you really want to address migration, then you have to face extreme poverty, inequality, violence, lack of social opportunities, lack of services such as education, health, clean water and electricity.”

One summit attendee, Claudia Ortiz, a Salvadoran federal legislator with the opposition party VAMOS, said that it was important for Northern Triangle representatives to participate in conclaves such as the summit — even their heads of state were no-shows.


“People lose by having rulers who irresponsibly do not attend to a space where they can influence the decisions that are made at the hemisphere level,” said Ortiz, who during the summit has participated in forums with the former president of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla, and with the former Guatemalan vice president, Eduardo Stein.

“At the diplomatic level, it is understood as rude to be invited to a summit and simply not have a compelling reason not to attend, and you send someone else who is not at the same hierarchical level, who has no decision-making power,” Ortiz said.

Back on the streets near the Convention Center, the demonstrators, for their part, were doing their best to convey the message that was a compelling reason not to attend.

“No more embargo!” they shouted over and over. “No more blockade!”