WASHINGTON D.C. – There are times in diplomacy when smiling for a photo is enough, then leaving without enjoying a long dinner.
That’s what happened with the recent meeting of the presidents of Mexico and the United States. On his Twitter account, Andrés Manuel López Obrador posted three photos with Joe Biden in the Oval Office. In all three, they smile. Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard also posted one of those photos and wrote, “To sum it up.”
Although the Mexican president set out five areas of cooperation – oddly reading a nearly half-hour speech in Spanish before the news media, as it was translated to a patiently waiting Biden – and the United States got Mexico to promise to spend $1.5 billion on its border posts – something that Donald Trump never did – what was important was for AMLO and Biden to meet face to face. This quickie meeting – squeezed in just hours before Biden left for the Middle East – came after the Mexican president refused to attend a Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles because Biden did not invite the dictators of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
After the snub, came the reconciliation.
The outcome, in truth, was good for AMLO and Biden. Tensions did not grow; the two leaders showed mutual respect; AMLO was very warmly received by the hundreds of Mexicans who followed his every activity in Washington; the Statue of Liberty was not torn down; and in the end the presidents said what they always say, that they are going to work together, etc. etc. etc.
The asymmetric relationship between Mexico and the United States is permanently plagued with problems and disagreements. The history is laden, and resentful. Mexico lost half its territory during the 1848 war. And the border between the two countries, in the words of author Carlos Fuentes, is truly “a scar that bleeds.”
If AMLO and Biden have anything in common, it is that both are pro-immigration and neither can control what is happening along the border.
From the balcony of his Hotel Lombardy room in Washington, the Mexican president shouted to a group of immigrants that they are “very loved” and noted the huge amounts of money they send to relatives and friends in Mexico. In the first four months of this year, Mexicans sent home $17 billion, a 17 percent increase from 2021. How could they not be loved, when they are sustaining a Mexican economy battered by the pandemic.
For his part, the first thing Biden did when he became president was to send Congress a proposal to legalize millions of undocumented migrants. It was only symbolic, because there were not enough votes to approve it. But Biden is not Trump. And the official policy is to not deport people just because they are undocumented, according to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Although the reality is much more complex and deportations along the border continue, Biden would immediately sign an immigration reform that reaches his desk.
The problem facing Biden and AMLO is that waves of migrants have overcome them. They cannot handle them, and never will. Hunger, the lack of opportunity and the fear of dying because of crime is much stronger than the risk of crossing the Rio Bravo/Grande, the Arizona desert or the mountains of California. What is logical, what history shows us, is that the poorer people on the continent, who live in the south, will move to the richer country to the north, where they can find better jobs, schools and medical services.
Facts: During the month of May, 239,000 people crossed the border illegally from Mexico to the United States. More than the 234,000 who crossed in April. Those numbers are unprecedented. Now multiply either of those numbers by 12 and you will see what’s expected this year.
The reality is that neither Biden nor AMLO can control those kinds of immigration flows. They are much bigger and more powerful than any wall, than any border patrol or national guard, than any law and any cooperation agreement. The reality on the border, we have to admit, is overwhelming. Millions will continue to arrive, with or without documents. Totally controlling immigration is impossible. It’s more realistic to try to manage it, and perhaps reduce it by a bit. That is all.
AMLO and Biden know that, and that’s why they need each other.
After the presidents met in the White House, I asked Juan Gonzalez – one of Biden’s top advisors on Latin America at the National Security Council – how he would describe the U.S.-Mexico relationship. “It is a necessary one, and one of the most important relationships we have, regardless of the issue,” he answered. He did not say friendly, marvelous or exemplary. He said “necessary.”
It is. Mexico and the United States need each other. Biden and AMLO need each other. Like two neighbors who know that neither will be buying a new home. That’s why they looked so happy in those photos. Because in fact they have no choice but to get along.
When the meeting ended, a group of foreign reporters were waiting for Lopez Obrador on the grounds of the White House. We had a lot of questions for AMLO, and clearly it would not be the same friendly format of his daily news conferences in Mexico City. We called him to come close, to talk. He saw us. He waived from afar and without a second thought left on a black Secret Service vehicle. I watched him pass in front of us, about two meters away, behind a dark window. He was still waving his hand.