MEXICO CITY (AP) — One of President Joe Biden’s key diplomatic decisions at this week’s meeting of North American leaders may have been his choice of airport.
Biden arrived in Mexico City on Sunday via Mexico’s newest hub, Felipe Angeles International Airport, a prized project by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The hub was inaugurated with much fanfare last year, even though it’s more than an hour’s drive north of the city center, has few flights and, until recently, had no consistent drinking water.
Biden and López Obrador, whose relationship is transactional at best and lacks the warmth and camaraderie that Biden has with other world leaders, shook hands and walked down a long red carpet of tarmac together, flanked by soldiers. The two then took the long drive to the city center together.
Along with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who arrives Monday, the trio will spend the next two days discussing migration, climate change, manufacturing, trade, economics and the potential global impact of a more cooperative North America.
“This meeting will deepen our coordination and advance our shared priorities for North America,” Biden tweeted.
Ahead of the summit, Biden, with Mexico’s blessing, announced a major change in US-Mexico border policy. The US will send 30,000 migrants back across the border each month from four other countries – among those who entered the US illegally. For those who entered legally, the US will accept 30,000 people a month from these four countries – Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela – for two years and offer the opportunity to work legally.
On Sunday, Biden spent four hours in El Paso, Texas, his first trip to the border as president and the longest he’s made along the U.S.-Mexico border. The day was heavily controlled and appeared designed to demonstrate a smooth process to process legally arriving migrants, weed out smuggled contraband and humanely treat those who entered illegally, thereby countering Republican claims of a crisis situation was created, which would amount to an open situation border.
But it likely did little to quell critics from both sides, including pro-immigrant advocates, who have accused the Democratic president of pursuing cruel policies not dissimilar to those of his hard-line predecessor, Republican Donald Trump.
Biden encountered no migrants except as his motorcade drove along the border and about a dozen queued up on the Ciudad Juárez side of Mexico. His visit did not include time at a border guard station, where illegally crossing migrants are arrested and held before their release.
Elsewhere in El Paso, where Biden was not visiting, hundreds of migrants gathered outside Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where they have slept outdoors and received three meals a day from faith groups and other humanitarian organizations.
The migrant group had several pregnant women, including 26-year-old Karla Sainz, who is eight months old. She was traveling in a small group that included her two-year-old son, Joshua. Sainz left her three other children at home in Venezuela with their mother.
“I would ask President Biden to help me with a permit or something so we can work and move on,” she said.
Noengris Garcia, also eight months pregnant, traveled with her husband, teenage son and family dog from the tiny state of Portuguesa, Venezuela, where she ran a food stand.
“We don’t want money or a house,” says Garcia, 39. “We just want to work.”
When asked what he learned from seeing the border firsthand and speaking to the officials working on it, Biden said, “You need a lot of resources. We will get them.”
The number of migrants crossing the US-Mexico border has increased dramatically in Biden’s first two years in office. In the year ended September 30, there were more than 2.38 million stops, the first time the number surpassed 2 million. The administration has struggled to crack down on transitions and is reluctant to take measures similar to those taken by the Trump administration.
From Texas, Biden traveled south to Mexico City. López Obrador will officially welcome Biden to the Palacio Nacional on Monday, the first time Mexico has hosted a US president since 2014. The two will meet before Trudeau joins them for dinner. Biden and Trudeau will hold talks Tuesday, and then the three will gather for talks.
For the US, the main talking points are migration, drug trafficking and building on Biden’s push into electric vehicles and manufacturing. Mexico is focused on economic integration for North America, helping America’s poor, and regional ties that put all governments on an equal footing. Canada wants to expand its green initiatives.
As the three nations work together, all is not rosy. The leaders of Canada and Mexico have raised concerns about Biden’s “Buy American” plan. And while Biden’s push toward electric vehicles is a boon to both nations because of North American battery tax credits, there are concerns that US allies will be left behind.
Meanwhile, the US and Canada are accusing López Obrador of trying to favor Mexico’s state-owned utilities over power plants built by foreign and private investors, which is prohibited under the three countries’ free trade agreement.
Biden’s relationship with Trudeau is warmer, but he still hasn’t made it to Canada during his presidency, despite months of White House officials saying he plans to travel north after meeting in Los Angeles last fall.
López Obrador skipped this gathering because Biden had not invited the authoritarian regimes of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. He also makes no secret of his admiration for Trump. And he was one of only three world leaders to recognize Biden’s electoral victory only after the formal electoral college vote and the January 6 riot in the US Capitol. But they still recognize the importance of the other.
“They are both consummate politicians,” said Andrew Selee, head of the immigration think tank Migration Policy Institute in Washington, of Biden and López Obrador. “They’re looking for what the other person needs, and they’re trying to clarify what they need. It’s very transactional. There’s no big vision for the relationship right now.”
For Biden, that meant flying into the new airport, one of four key projects López Obrador plans to end before the end of his term next year as Mexico won’t allow re-election. The other projects are an oil refinery, a tourist train on the Yucatan Peninsula, and a train linking the Gulf Coast and Pacific seaports.
The airport was expected to cost $4.1 billion and was built after López Obrador canceled the partially built airport created by his predecessor. Hundreds of mammoth skeletons were uncovered during the construction of Felipe Angeles in 2020.
Associated Press writers Andres Leighton in El Paso, Texas; Anita Snow in Phoenix; Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Josh Boak in Washington contributed to this report.
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