Mexico's president made his second White House visit Tuesday as the Biden administration said it is on track to double the number of temporary-worker visas for migrants from Mexico and Central America. The move comes as migration increases from Central America's Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
The left-leaning populist leader held a lengthy public discourse with U.S. President Joe Biden in the Oval Office before the two sat down privately to discuss the neighbors' shared challenges.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador previously met with Biden in the White House in late 2021, for a three-way summit with Canada.
On Tuesday, the left-wing leader had Biden all to himself in the Oval Office.
Biden was visibly amused as López Obrador, through a translator, spoke for more than a half-hour on topics that included economics — "the reality we live in now makes it necessary and indispensable for us to produce everything we consume in our countries and regions," he said — and the contentious nature of American politics.
"I know that your adversaries, the conservatives, are going to be screaming all over the place," López Obrador said as Biden chuckled. "Even to heaven, they're going to be yelling at heaven."
Both leaders indicated that their previous disagreements, while not forgotten — and possibly not quite forgiven — were firmly in the past.
"In spite of our differences and our grievances that are not easy to forget — neither with time nor with good intentions, on many occasions — we've been able to meet and work together as good friends and true allies," López Obrador said.
"This is a relationship that directly impacts the daily lives, the daily lives of our people," Biden said. "And despite the overhyped headlines that we sometimes see, you and I have a strong and productive relationship."
Expanding legal options for migrants
That, the Biden administration said, is evident in their decision to expand legal options for migrants from the Americas. U.S. Border Patrol said the number of attempted crossings has jumped. In fiscal 2021, the border force reported 684,000 encounters at the Southwest border, up from 400,000 the previous year.
"We actually think we will reach that target of doubling the number of H-2 temporary-worker visas for Central Americans this fiscal year," Katie Tobin, senior director for transborder at the National Security Council, told VOA as the two presidents met.
"This is really at the heart of the Biden administration's policy of how we want to address irregular migration," she said. "We know that if we want to reduce the number of people that are migrating irregularly and having to rely on these criminal smuggling networks, we have to expand the number of legal pathways."
Looking ahead to 2024
While it is notable that Mexico's president has visited the White House twice within a year, Mexico's former ambassador to the U.S. told VOA that López Obrador's focus is largely domestic.
While López Obrador has now visited Washington three times — and New York, once — as president, he has only made five trips abroad in total since being elected to the one-term, six-year post in 2018.
"I don't think that López Obrador will be a bridge to Latin America simply because López Obrador is not interested in foreign policy," Arturo Sarukhan told VOA, via Zoom, from London.
"This is a man who famously ran his presidential campaign saying that the best foreign policy is domestic policy," Sarukhan added. "I think what is really important about this meeting in Washington today is President Biden's commitment to ensuring that the U.S.-Mexico relationship stays on an even keel, particularly as both countries remember every 12 years Mexico and the United States have presidential elections the same year."
The next U.S.-Mexico election eclipse comes in 2024.
VOA's Jorge Agobian and Chris Hannas contributed to this report.