Biden holds talks with Mexico’s president as pressure mounts over Title 42 border policy
President Biden held talks Friday with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador as a looming deadline to lift COVID-related restrictions at the U.S. southern border magnified concerns over the administration’s immigration policies and an increase in illegal border crossings.
The conversation — which lasted 52 minutes and touched on cooperation over migration, energy, security and economic growth — comes at the end of a tough week for the White House.
The administration faces mounting criticism over its plans to end so-called Title 42 authority, a public health order that allows border agents to expel asylum-seekers to Mexico. The policy was enacted during the Trump administration to curb the spread of COVID-19.
The Biden administration says the use of Title 42 was never intended to be permanent, and the policy is being eased along with other pandemic-related restrictions.
“The majority of the conversation was about migration and was about continued work on coordination, economic coordination, on taking steps to reduce migration to the border, and they have been a partner in that over the last several months,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at a press briefing following the call.
López Obrador described the conversation as “cordial” and said in a tweet following the call that the two discussed “issues of interest in the bilateral relationship.”
Psaki said the tone of the call was “constructive” but declined to say whether Biden asked López Obrador to add Mexican troops at the border once Title 42 is lifted.
Earlier this week, a federal judge halted the Department of Homeland Security’s plans to suspend the order May 23, as a growing number of Democrats who are up for reelection have joined Republicans in criticizing the winding down of the policy. Republicans grilled Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas on Capitol Hill over a record number of border crossings that resulted in 210,000 arrests in March, the highest monthly total in two decades.
Biden has struggled to strike a balance on immigration, fulfilling campaign promises to his party’s progressive wing while appeasing the concerns of centrists about illegal border crossings. Republicans have been hammering Democrats on the issue ahead of November’s midterm elections.
After calls from some Democrats to produce a more detailed plan to replace Title 42, the Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday released a 20-page memo laying out a six-point strategy that includes sending more personnel to the border, fast-tracking procedures for those who don’t qualify for asylum and expanding temporary detention facilities along the border.
Encouraging Mexico to cooperate in handling an increase in border crossings once Title 42 is lifted was to be a top agenda item in the president’s call with López Obrador, according to a senior Biden administration official.
“We really will need to rely on our partnership more than ever to have a coordinated response, to surge additional staff and resources on both sides of our border to make sure that we have an orderly and humane response,” said the official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity in advance of Biden’s conversation.
While grappling with Title 42, the White House has also sought to terminate a Trump-era policy known as “Remain in Mexico,” which requires asylum-seekers, a majority from Central and South America, to stay in Mexico while their cases are being considered. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments earlier this week on whether the administration can scrap the program.
The two leaders also discussed the Summit of the Americas, set for June in Los Angeles. The U.S. will host leaders from North, South and Central America, as well as the Caribbean, for the ninth summit.
López Obrador said Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard would travel to Washington on Monday for discussions on “issues of cooperation for development and the Summit of the Americas.”
Asked if Biden planned to visit the U.S. southern border ahead of the summit, Psaki said, “We’re certainly open to it.”
The two leaders last met in person in November around the announcement of the U.S.-Mexico Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health and Safe Communities. But tensions have since surfaced over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Mexico has condemned the invasion, but López Obrador refused to join the U.S. and other countries in imposing economic sanctions on Russia for its continued assault.
The two have also clashed over Mexico’s planned energy reforms, in which López Obrador has sought to consolidate state control of his country’s electric power market, in a potential violation of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade pact.
A senior U.S. official said the administration has concerns about the potential negative impact of Mexico’s energy reforms on U.S. private investment there and is working to resolve the disputes.
Times staff writer Kate Linthicum contributed to this report.
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