WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador met virtually Monday as both leaders grappled with how to handle thousands of migrants seeking asylum along the United States and Mexico border.
"The United States and Mexico are stronger when we stand together," Biden said at the top of the meeting that also focused on tackling COVID-19, areas of economic cooperation, climate change and national security.
López Obrador responded: "We are not only united by geography, we are united by our economies, our trade, our culture, our history and our friendship"
The meeting came as the Biden administration faces questions about how it plans to deal with the growing number of unaccompanied minors who have been entering the United States along the southern border.
U.S. Border Patrol agents have been apprehending an average of more than 200 unaccompanied children crossing the border each day.
However, nearly all the 7,100 beds for immigrant children maintained by the Department of Health and Human Services are filled.
The Biden administration recently opened a temporary facility in South Texas to house minors for processing.
But the move prompted criticism from some Democrats and immigration activists who argued the facilities weren't suitable for children.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, speaking at the White House daily news briefing Monday, said the increasing number of minors arriving at the border presented a "challenge," but stopped short of describing it as a crisis.
"The men and women of the Department of Homeland Security are working around the clock, seven days a week to ensure that we do not have a crisis at the border, that we manage the challenge, as acute as the challenge is," Mayorkas said.
The secretary also announced updates on the efforts to reunite nearly 500 migrant parents who were separated from their children under the Trump administration’s "zero tolerance" policy.
The Biden administration will seek to reunite the families, "either here or in the country of origin," Mayorkas said.
"We hope to be in a position to give them the election," he said. "And if, in fact, they seek to reunite here in the United States, we will explore lawful pathways for them to remain in the United States and to address the family needs so we are acting as restoratively as possible."
Biden’s meeting with López Obrador marked his second bilateral meeting with a world leader. Biden met last week with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
López Obrador, who was sworn into office midway through President Donald Trump’s term, had a friendly relationship with Trump — despite the fact that the Mexican president is a leftist populist, while Trump called himself a nationalist.
López Obrador sent troops to Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala in an attempt to stem some of the flow of Central American migrants heading north to the United States.
He also cooperated with the Trump administration’s Remain in Mexico policy that required migrants to wait in Mexico or their home country for their U.S. asylum hearing date, a process that often takes applicants months.
Before his meeting with Biden, López Obrador told reporters in Mexico City that he planned to make the case for the United States to open up sales of COVID-19 vaccines to Mexico. Trudeau made a similar appeal last week during his meeting with Biden.
So far, the Biden administration has not budged from its position that enough vaccines must be manufactured for all Americans before the vaccines are sold abroad.
Asked Monday if the administration would consider López Obrador’s request, White House press secretary Jen Psaki replied "no."
"The president has made clear that he is focused on ensuring that vaccines are accessible to every American. That is our focus," Psaki said.
López Obrador also told reporters that he planned to pitch Biden on a labor agreement that would permit 600,000 to 800,000 Mexican and Central American immigrants a year to work legally in the United States.
The Mexican president said the plan would mirror the Bracero Program that ran from 1942 to 1961. A signed agreement between the United States and Mexico allowed thousands of Mexican laborers, known as "braceros," to work legally here, primarily mainly as farmworkers.
Psaki said she believed that any such program would require action by Congress.
With The Associated Press