Gathered in the White House’s Roosevelt Room with top aides including Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas as well as an onlooking press corps, Mr Biden struck notes of accord with his key North American counterpart.
“We look at Mexico as an equal, not as somebody who is south of our border. You are equal, and what you do in Mexico and how you succeed impacts dramatically what the rest of the hemisphere will look like,” Mr Biden told Mr López Obrador in introductory remarks.
“The United States and Mexico are stronger when we stand together … There is a long and complicated history between our nations that haven’t always been perfect neighbors with one another, but we have seen over and over again the power and purpose when we cooperate. And we’re safer when we work together, whether it’s addressing the challenges of our shared border or getting this pandemic under control.”
Mr López Obrador stressed the importance of “constant dialogue” in building “good relationships” between the governments and its top officers.
While Mr López Obrador, a liberal populist, diverged dramatically with Donald Trump on several issues and often took umbrage with the former president’s brazen rhetoric about immigration and border security, they developed a solid working relationship as their administrations reached several key agreements on trade and immigration flow.
Mr Biden has already begun dismantling Mr Trump’s immigration legacy.
The new administration has halted construction of the former president’s border wall project, for which Mr Trump had vowed to his supporters Mexico would pay. (The Mexicans did not pay a cent.)
And while Mr Biden has kept Mr Trump’s policy in place to send new migrants back to Mexico due to concerns about Covid spread, the new president has already begun rolling back other Trump-era policies that hardened the border against refugees and other migrants seeking opportunities or safe haven in the US.
The Biden administration has ended Mr Trump’s so-called Remain in Mexico programme that forced more than 70,000 asylum-seekers to stay south of the border while their cases wound their way through immigration courts. Thousands of those enrollees have now crossed into the US under the Biden administration’s supervision. Each person is tested for Covid before entry into the country.
Mr Mayorkas, the DHS secretary who oversees US Immigration and Customs Enforcement operations, has echoed Mr Biden’s new tone of empathy and partnership towards Mexico and Central America.
Mr Mayorkas told reporters at the White House on Monday that the US immigration system would need time to “rebuild out of the depths of cruelty” overseen by the previous administration.
“The prior administration dismantled our nation’s immigration system in its entirety. When I started 27 days ago I learned that we did not have the facilities available or equipped to administer the humanitarian laws our Congress passed years ago,” Mr Mayorkas said.
The DHS secretary urged people who are considering seeking refuge in the US by crossing the border with Mexico to hold off for now as the new administration gathers resources to provide humanitarian conditions and processing for new asylum-seekers.
“They need to wait. It takes time to rebuild the system from scratch,” he said. Plus, he added, they will be forced to go back to Mexico due to public health guidelines from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
“If they come, we are obligated to, in the service of public health, to impose the travel restrictions under the CDC’s authorities and return them to Mexico. … Families and single adults are in fact being returned under the Covid-19 restrictions,” Mr Mayorkas said.
Every week, thousands of migrants have been crossing the southern border into the US, straining US Immigration and Customs Enforcement resources.
Mr Mayorkas nevertheless refused on Monday to categorise the border situation as a “crisis.”
“We are challenged at the border,” he said. “The men and women at the DHS are meeting that challenge. It is a stressful challenge.”
While the Biden administration expresses more openness to the migratory flow between the two countries, he would not commit to sharing the US’s Covid vaccine supply with Mexico until all Americans had been afforded the opportunity to receive a jab.
Mr Biden was expected to deny an entreaty from Obrador for the US to share its Covid vaccine supply with its poorer neighbour to the south.
“No,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki bluntly responded at her daily press briefing on Monday when asked whether Mr Biden would take Mr López Obrador’s request into consideration.
“The President has made clear that he is focused on ensuring that vaccines are accessible to every American. That is our focus,” Ms Psaki said.
“The next step is economic recovery — and [part of] that is ensuring that our neighbours, Mexico and Canada, have similarly managed the pandemic so that we can open borders and build back better. But … the administration’s focus is on ensuring that every American is vaccinated. And once we accomplish that objective, we’re happy to discuss further steps beyond that,” Ms Psaki said.
Mr Lopez Obrador has spearheaded a publicity campaign among poorer countries to pressure their richer counterparts to share Covid vaccines and treatments, saying the current distribution is “totally unfair.”
So far 50 million Americans have received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine. In Mexico that number is just roughly 2.5 million.