WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden hosted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico at the White House on Thursday, a diplomatic mission that saw three leaders trying to project a united front amid trade scuffles, accusations of American protectionism and ongoing concerns over surging migration at the U.S.-Mexico border.
But while they agreed to form a working group on regional supply chain issues, including for critical minerals, and struck an agreement to share vaccines, the leaders seemed intent on relaying diplomatic niceties over tackling thornier questions like trade disputes or the surging numbers of migrants.
“We can meet all of the challenges if we just take the time to speak with one another,” Biden said during a meeting with both leaders Thursday evening.
The return of the summit after a five-year hiatus signaled an increased appetite among North American leaders to show a sense of strategic and economic solidarity amid a rise in competition from Asia and Europe. The gathering also comes at a critical moment for the United States, as the breakdown in global supply chains and the mass movement of people across the Americas has made cooperation with Mexico and Canada more vital than ever.
“This is one of the easiest relationships that we have,” Biden said during a meeting with Trudeau, glossing over Canada’s complaints that the president’s buy-American policies on goods like electric vehicles have disrupted commerce between the two countries.
In his first in-person meeting with López Obrador since becoming president, Biden, speaking through a translator, said he saw the United States and Mexico as equals. The Mexican president praised Biden’s plan to provide citizenship to more than 11 million migrants living without legal status in the United States, a proposal that has gained little steam in Congress.
Throughout the day, each leader declined to answer questions from reporters about American policies that turn asylum-seekers back to Mexico. Biden’s advisers said the group would discuss humane ways to address the root causes that drive people north and would confront the flow of fentanyl and other drugs toward the U.S.-Mexico border. But they also said the group would not discuss policies that have become flash points for immigration activists, including a program that forces some asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases are pending.
When asked how the problem of migration could be discussed without mentioning those programs, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters that pending litigation prevented the policy, known as Remain in Mexico, from being openly discussed, “but certainly migration will be.”
One day before the summit, more than 70 human rights and immigration advocacy organizations pressed Biden and his counterparts to discuss what they described as “cruel, ineffective and unlawful” immigration policies.
No accords were struck over ongoing disagreements over how each country has handled its trade commitments. Since Biden took office, the particulars of that Trump-era revision of the North American Free Trade Agreement, called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, have been in dispute. The pact sought to update Mexico’s labor laws, encourage more auto production in North America, and open Canadian markets for American dairy farmers.
In recent weeks, the Canadian government has argued that the tax credit offered to American consumers who buy American-made electric vehicles is in breach of the accord. Speaking to reporters in a news conference Monday, Trudeau said that the Biden administration’s buy-American ethos was “counterproductive” to promoting commerce between the two countries.
“We don’t view it that way,” Psaki said to reporters Thursday. “In our view, the electric vehicle tax credit is an opportunity to help consumers in this country.”
For its part, the Biden administration has accused the Canadian government of practices that favor their domestic dairy farmers and has raised concerns that Mexico’s energy policies give state-owned companies an unfair advantage. American officials said Wednesday that Biden planned to reaffirm USMCA provisions in support of labor rights protection, a reference to a dispute settled against Mexico earlier this year.
The leaders did strike an agreement over vaccine sharing, with Canada and Mexico agreeing to share “millions” of doses with poorer countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, an official said.
For Biden, the more delicate discussions were sure to come with Mexico’s president, who has lashed out at the United States and pursed policies that run counter to American interests. While López Obrador lavished praise on President Donald Trump for not interfering in Mexican affairs, he has taken a more openly confrontational stance toward American policies since Biden took office.
Mexico, long an underdog in the relationship with its neighbors, has earned considerable leverage in a year that saw a wave of pandemic-fueled migration from Latin America. For the Biden administration, the importance of maintaining strong Mexican enforcement was made clear in September, when thousands of Haitians walked across the border to Texas.
“The power balance between the Mexican government and the U.S. government has shifted because of the circumstances,” said Duncan Wood, the vice president of strategy at the Wilson Center. Mexican officials, Wood said, “know they can hurt the Biden administration, and they know that the Biden administration knows that.”
Just this week, López Obrador skewered the U.S. embargo on Cuba as “vile” and attacked the Biden administration for helping to fund Mexican media groups that he described as “opposition publications.” (The president previously said that American financing for Mexican civil society amounts to “promoting a coup mentality.”)
Vice President Kamala Harris met with López Obrador during her trip to Mexico over the summer and has since been seen as an internal keeper of that relationship. In her own meeting with López Obrador on Thursday, Harris spoke of their shared interest in history but also “the issue of our mutual concern about migration and what we will do as partners to address, in particular, the root causes of migration.”
López Obrador, for his part, seized a moment during the meeting with Biden and Trudeau to warn of rising competition from China and the risks of a snarled global supply chain.
“The best, the most convenient thing, is to strengthen our economies, to strengthen our trade operations through North America and the entire continent,” he said. “It is a paradox that so much money circulates throughout North America, and the ports of the Pacific are overwhelmed with merchandise from Asia.”
López Obrador also said migration represented a “huge potential” to bolster the workforces of each country, and reminded Biden of his earlier commitment to find a way to offer a pathway to citizenship for migrants who have entered the U.S. illegally.
“No president in the history of the United States has expressed as you have such a clear and certain commitment to improve the situation of the migrants,” López Obrador said through a translator. “I hope that you have the support of Congress and the members of both the Democrat and Republican parties.”