MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador said Monday ahead of a summit of North American leaders this week that he would consider accepting more migrants than previously announced as part of President Joe Biden’s plan to turn away people from four countries who cross the border illegally. to the United States.
“We don’t want to prejudge things, but it is part of what we will talk about at the summit,” López Obrador said. “We support this type of measure to give people options, alternatives,” he said, adding that “the numbers could go up.”
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, cautioned that nothing has been decided yet.
“We need to see how the program announced last week works in practice, what if any adjustments need to be made to this program, and then we can talk about next steps,” he said.
The comments reflected highly sensitive negotiations on migration, which will be central to the two-day summit involving Biden, López Obrador and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
All three nations are grappling with the influx of people coming to North America, as well as cracking down on smugglers who profit from persuading migrants to make the dangerous journey to the US.
Other issues discussed include climate change, energy and supply chains.
Sullivan said Monday that the trip will be “a good opportunity for President Biden to deepen his personal cooperation with President López Obrador and Prime Minister Trudeau.”
Before the summit, Biden announced a major shift in migration policy that was negotiated with Mexico. Under the plan, the U.S. will send 30,000 migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela back across the border every month from among those who entered the U.S. illegally. Migrants who come from these four countries do not easily return to their home countries for various reasons.
In addition, 30,000 people a month from these four countries who obtain sponsors, background checks and an airline flight to the US will be given the opportunity to work legally in the country for two years.
Biden arrived in Mexico on Sunday evening via the new Felipe Angeles International Airport, a prized project of the Mexican president. The center was christened last year with fanfare, although it is more than an hour’s drive north of the city center, has few flights and, until recently, lacked constant drinking water.
The two leaders made the long trip downtown in Biden’s limousine. López Obrador was fascinated by the presidential vehicle known as “the beast” and said Biden showed it to him.
“He showed me how the buttons worked himself,” 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 person.”
It was a remarkably warm comment given that the men’s relationship was transactional at best and lacked the warmth and camaraderie that Biden has with some other world leaders.
On his trip to Mexico, Biden made a four-hour stop in El Paso, Texas — his first trip to the border as president and the longest he has spent on the U.S.-Mexico line. The visit was tightly controlled and appeared designed to counter Republican claims of a crisis situation by showing a smooth operation in processing migrants entering legally, removing contraband and treating those who entered illegally in a humane manner.
But the trip likely did little to quell critics from both parties, including immigrant advocates who accuse the Democratic president of implementing a harsh policy not unlike that of his hard-line predecessor, Republican Donald Trump.
The number of migrants crossing the US-Mexico border increased dramatically during Biden’s first two years in office. There were more than 2.38 million stops in the year ending September 30, the first time the number has exceeded 2 million.
López Obrador will formally welcome Biden to the Palacio Nacional later Monday, the first time Mexico has hosted a US president since 2014. The two leaders will meet together before a private dinner for all three leaders and their wives. Biden and Trudeau will hold their own talks on Tuesday before the three leaders meet for key summit talks.
First Lady Jill Biden arrived in Mexico separately. On Monday, she met with women from the fields of education, art and business, mostly recipients of American cooperation programs or scholarships.
“Do what you want, but teach others,” she said as she encouraged women to work together and support others.
For the US, the main talking points at the summit are migration, the drug trade and building on Biden’s push for electric vehicles and manufacturing. Mexico focuses on the economic integration of North America, supporting the poor in the Americas, and regional relations that put all governments on an equal footing. Canada is trying to expand green initiatives.
Leaders of Canada and Mexico have expressed concern over Biden’s “Buy American” plan. And while Biden’s push for electric vehicles benefits both of the US’s neighbors because of tax breaks for North American batteries, there is concern that US allies will be left behind.
Meanwhile, the US and Canada accuse López Obrador of trying to favor Mexico’s state-owned energy company over power plants built by foreign and private investors, which is prohibited under the three countries’ free trade pact.
Biden’s relationship with Trudeau is warmer than with Lopez Obrador, but he has still not made it to Canada during his presidency, despite White House officials saying for months that he planned to head north after the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles last fall.
López Obrador skipped the California summit 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 only three world leaders who did not recognize Biden’s election victory until after the formal Electoral College vote and the Jan. 6 uprising at the U.S. Capitol.
Despite the strained relationship, they recognize each other’s importance, said Andrew Selee, head of the Migration Policy Institute, an immigration think tank in Washington.
“They are both consummate politicians,” he said. “They’re looking for what the other person needs and trying to clarify what they need. It’s very transactional. There’s no grand vision of the relationship. Now.”
For Biden, it meant a flight to the new airport, one of four key projects López Obrador is trying to complete before the end of his term next year because Mexico does not allow re-election. Other projects include an oil refinery, a tourist train in the Yucatan Peninsula, and a train connecting the Gulf Coast and Pacific seaports.
López Obrador has faced much criticism over the $4.1 billion airport, which was built after scrapping a partially built airport created by his predecessor. During the construction of Felipe Angeles in 2020, hundreds of mammoth skeletons were uncovered.
Associated Press writers Andres Leighton in El Paso, Texas; Anita Snow in Phoenix; Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Mark Stevenson in Mexico City and Chris Megerian and Josh Boak in Washington contributed to this report.