WHITE HOUSE - Rather than talk of bigger walls, the American president did some fence-mending on Monday with his counterpart south of the border.
U.S. President Joe Biden, in a virtual meeting with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, noted "a long and complicated history between our nations that haven't always been perfect neighbors with one another."
Biden, in the White House, told Lopez Obrador in Mexico City that "we're safer when we work together — whether it's addressing the challenges of our shared border or getting this pandemic under control."
Biden explained that when he was vice president in the administration of Barack Obama, it was decided to "look at Mexico as an equal, not as somebody who is south of our border. You are equal."
Lopez Obrador, who appeared on video screens in the Roosevelt Room, said that "integration will strengthen both of our countries." He also thanked Biden for wanting to base the relationship on respect and equality, adding that "we must keep on cooperating for further development based on independence and autonomy."
The meeting, not held in person because of the coronavirus pandemic, is intended to "usher in a new phase" of the bilateral relationship, according to the White House, noting the move to a different track from one pursued by the previous U.S. president.
During his four years in office, Donald Trump, who was succeeded by Biden in January, threatened Mexico with tariffs and a crackdown on migration, and claimed the southern neighbor would pay for a wall along their 3,100-kilometer-long common border.
Mexico did not pay for the wall and Trump on Sunday, in his first speech since leaving office, blamed Biden's administration for leaving the border wall unfinished.
"They don't want to complete it," Trump said in an address to a conservative conference in Florida. "They don't want to complete little sections in certain little areas."
Trump also criticized his successor for dismantling other planks of his tough immigration and border policies and issued unsubstantiated warnings that Biden's polices would lead to a renewed wave of mass illegal migration.
Before Monday's meeting between Biden and the Mexican president, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced steps to allow migrant families separated at the border to reunite and remain in the United States – a reversal of Trump's approach, which some rights groups had compared to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
"We applaud Secretary Mayorkas' commitment to remedy the torture and abuse of families who were separated from their children in immigration proceedings," American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony Romero said in a statement. "Of course, the devil is in the details, and Secretary Mayorkas has to shed all the caveats and qualifications around his announcement and follow through with everything that's necessary to right the wrong."
Mayorkas, speaking to reporters at the White House earlier in the day, said the administration is "working around the clock to replace the cruelty of the past administration with an orderly, humane and safe immigration process. It is hard and it will take time."
Mayorkas said the Trump administration "dismantled our nation's immigration system in its entirety."
The Trump administration's last homeland security secretary, Chad Wolf, bristled at the criticism. He tweeted that Mayorkas' assertion that there is no crisis at the southern border "defies, logic, reality, and the facts. Ask communities along the border."
Mexico, which sent troops to its southern border with Guatemala under pressure from Trump, has been hosting about 70,000 people seeking asylum in the United States while they waited for dates in immigration courts.
The Biden administration immediately suspended the program, known as Remain in Mexico, when the new president took office and subsequently announced an estimated 26,000 people with still-active cases could be released in the United States while their cases played out.
Biden, however, under pandemic protocols has kept in place the power to immediately expel anyone arriving at the border without an opportunity to seek asylum.
"The truth is that arrests at the border have been rising for four months now, largely under the assumption that a change in administration means a change in U.S. posture," said Ryan Berg, an American Enterprise Institute research fellow whose focus is Latin America.
"Even if the Biden administration is right to push for major changes from the previous administration, such as allowing migrant families separated at the border to remain legally in the country, they will continue to struggle with the fact that many in the region are interpreting the message as now is the time to migrate to the United States. As we've seen historically, even small changes in policy can ignite the formation of caravans and an uptick in arrivals at the border," Berg said.
What long-term approach Biden will take toward Lopez Obrador, "whose help will remain critical in stemming the flow of migrants, especially after the pandemic," remains a key question yet to be answered, Berg told VOA.
Mexico's president is pitching a new "Bracero"-type immigrant labor program that could bring up to 800,000 Mexican and Central American immigrants a year to work legally in the United States.
Lopez Obrador is touting the "strength" and "youth" of Mexican laborers for a United States with an aging workforce.
The original Bracero program allowed Mexicans to work temporarily north of the border amid labor shortages during World War II and for a couple of decades after the war.
Another serious issue confronting the neighboring countries is the common threat from transnational organized crime. The United States has appropriated several billion dollars over three years to equip and train Mexican forces to combat more than 200 brutally violent criminal gangs that, besides drug and weapons trafficking, are involved in human smuggling, kidnapping, extortion and cybercrime.
Mexico also is asking the United States to share its supply of coronavirus vaccines.
"If President Biden wishes, he can give us an answer in the conversation about the vaccines," Lopez Obrador told reporters on Monday before his virtual meeting with the U.S. president. "We have to be respectful, but it's a subject that matters a lot to us."
Trump signed an executive order in December mandating Americans have initial access to vaccines procured by the United States government.
The Mexican president has been vocal critic of the global inequity in the distribution of the vaccines.
"No," bluntly replied White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, when asked on Monday by a reporter if Biden would agree to Lopez Obrador's request. "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."
Asked by a reporter in the Roosevelt Room, during the virtual meeting, about Lopez Obrador's request for help, Biden responded, "We're going to talk about that."