By Hamed Aleaziz and Emiliano Rodríguez Mega
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other top American officials discussed the root causes of migration with Mexico’s president Wednesday in hopes of figuring out a strategy to slow the surge in illegal crossings at the southern U.S. border.
President Joe Biden dispatched the officials to Mexico City at a pivotal moment, as border crossings have hit record numbers and there is growing pressure on Biden to solve — or at least contain — a crisis that has proved to be a consistent political vulnerability.
The situation at the border is at the center of some of Biden’s biggest priorities going into 2024, particularly as Republicans in Congress demand a new crackdown on immigration in exchange for wartime aid for Ukraine and Israel.
“As we made clear in Mexico City today, we are committed to partnering with Mexico to address our shared challenges, including managing unprecedented irregular migration in the region, reopening key ports of entry and combating illicit fentanyl and other synthetic drugs,” Blinken said in a post on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter.
The large number of migrants in recent weeks has forced border officials to temporarily shut down several railway crossings in Texas and to close the port of entry in Lukeville, Arizona. Those actions were intended to allow border officials to redeploy their personnel to respond to the situation.
But the decision disrupted business in the United States and Mexico. On Wednesday, Alicia Bárcena Ibarra, Mexico’s secretary of foreign affairs, said that “the importance of reopening the border crossings is a priority for us.”
Mexico has been a key player in the U.S.’ efforts to stem the tide of migration as people from across the globe have passed through the country. On several occasions in recent weeks, the U.S. Border Patrol encountered more than 10,000 people a day trying to cross the border.
Shortly before Wednesday’s meeting, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico said the U.S. Congress should offer more support to Latin America instead of putting up “barriers, barbed wire fences on the river or thinking about building walls.”
He added, “It is more efficient and more humane to invest in the development of the people.”
López Obrador also said next year’s presidential election in the United States would bring migration to the top of the agenda. Former President Donald Trump, whose plans to erect a border wall became emblematic of his harsh immigration policies, is the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.
“The migration issue is going to intensify,” López Obrador said.
Wednesday’s two-hour meeting also included Alejandro Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, and Liz Sherwood-Randall, the White House homeland security adviser.
Mexico has taken steps to keep migrants from massing along the border in the past. But earlier this month, the Mexican government suspended migrant deportations because of a lack of funding, according to an official from the government’s National Migration Institute who was not authorized to speak publicly.
During the Trump administration, Mexico agreed to take migrants under a policy known as “Remain in Mexico.” The migrants waited in border towns for months as they awaited court hearings in the United States, a key pillar of Trump’s crackdown on asylum-seekers.
Later, during the institution of Title 42, a measure that allowed border agents to quickly expel asylum-seekers, Mexico agreed to take in migrants from other countries.
Biden has struggled to keep the numbers down despite trying to institute limits on asylum access at the border and deporting migrants to Venezuela and Cuba.
He has also said he is willing to make “significant compromises” with Republicans on the border if Republicans will agree to aid for Ukraine and Israel.
A caravan that began its journey north Sunday reflects the challenges in curbing migration. Migrant caravans have become a common phenomenon and are usually broken up by authorities well before they reach the U.S. border.
The latest caravan, roughly 1,000 miles south of the U.S. border in the state of Chiapas, includes people from Honduras, Haiti and Cuba, among other countries. The Mexico office of the United Nations refugee agency said in a statement that the procession was starting to disperse and consisted of more than 2,000 people.
It initially included approximately 5,000 people, the agency said.
Republicans have stepped up their attacks on Biden over the border numbers, a continuing issue for the president as he seeks reelection next year. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law that authorizes law enforcement officials in his state to arrest migrants who cross without authorization. (El Paso County challenged the measure in federal court last week.) The president has also faced pressure from mayors in Democratic cities over the increase in migrants arriving in their cities.
Last week, López Obrador briefed reporters about a call with Biden in which they agreed that more enforcement at the border was needed.
“Now we have an extraordinary situation because the number of migrants passing through our country with the purpose of reaching the United States has increased,” he said, adding that Mexico was “going to help, as we always do.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials announced Friday that there were more than 190,000 apprehensions between ports of entry in November. U.S. officials said they “removed or returned” more than 400,000 people between May and the end of November.
“We are facing a serious challenge along the southwest border, and CBP and our federal partners need more resources from Congress — as outlined in the supplemental budget request — to enhance border security and America’s national security,” Troy Miller, the acting leader of the border agency, said in a statement Friday.