President Biden went to Mexico to discuss a range of issues including migration, trade, and fentanyl with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (aka AMLO) in a two-day summit. However, as the summit came to a close, the prospect of successful talks remained elusive, a foreboding observation in the face of such critical issues. A crucial barometer of how productive these talks were may be in increased seizures of fentanyl at the border, but the time frame for such a reading is at least some months away.
The migration question is particularly pressing for President Biden. For millions of migrants, the U.S. is the final destination, but state and federal officials are woefully ill-prepared to accommodate them, often leaving many unattended, without proper registration, and in potentially harmful circumstances. As an act of desperation, governors of some border states, such as Greg Abbot (TX-R), have organized migrant caravans into northern cities and states to raise awareness on the issue.
But the migrants keep coming.
In the domestic sphere, the President is stuck in limbo while federal courts squabble over the use of Title 42 to block migrants and asylum seekers from entry on covid grounds. Additionally, with Republicans now in control of the House of Representatives, Biden is no longer able to wiggle around the crisis. The turnover in Congress also makes legislation on the matter less likely; working with Mexico may, in the Administration’s mind, prove more manageable than trying to work with the opposition party.
Regardless of Congressional input, Mexico is key to the President’s tight-rope act of trying to at once signal stronger enforcement at the border while also seeking to allow more refugees and migrants in legally, in part to shore up his own party’s progressive wing. Biden has relied on AMLO’s government to apprehend a large amount of migrants since he entered office, continuing a policy initiated by President Trump.
Whether Mexico can do more is sure to be a sticking point for the populist government south of the Rio Grande.
The other key bilateral issue centers around fentanyl.
Fentanyl is a dangerous drug manufactured, mostly, in Mexico using Chinese-made synthetic opioid chemicals. The drug is more potent than other opioids such as heroin or oxytocin, which means it can be distributed in far smaller amounts, making detection incredibly tricky. Deaths from fentanyl have skyrocketed in recent years, becoming the leading cause of death for American adults under the age of 50 and have largely replaced deaths from traditional drug killers such as heroin.
The Mexican government has been fighting a war against a cadre of cartels for more than a decade, costing tens of thousands of lives and exposing severe weaknesses in Mexico’s institutions. Not only does fentanyl pose a major health threat inside the United States, it also raises the specter of geopolitical fallout if the fentanyl-producing cartels cannot be quelled in Mexico, as cartels have a long track record of infiltrating Mexican law enforcement.
President Biden needs AMLO and Mexico to step up the fight, but it is a risky gamble for a government plagued by corruption and fraud – especially because it is unclear exactly who can be trusted.
However, the President may have a more united chorus behind him in Congress when dealing with fentanyl. Politicians from both parties, and both chambers, have increasingly made the drug a focus of legislative efforts – although no substantial legislation has made it to the President’s desk.
Fundamentally, fentanyl is more than a frontier problem on the border. The cartels can only make the drug if they can acquire the synthetic chemicals produced in China. As yet, the cartels are not advanced students in chemical construction, and if Biden and AMLO (along with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau) can put on a united front, pressuring China to end the gluttonous production of these chemicals may be in the cards.
The Biden Administration needs Mexico’s cooperation on both these issues, and as a gesture of goodwill, the White House agreed to fly into the Felipe Ángeles airport, a source of political controversy for AMLO.
The symbolism may mean a lot for the Mexican president and his allies, but unless this summit bears real fruit, it could turn out to be just another false landing.