Blinken, Garland and Mayorkas Land in Mexico to Tackle Range of Issues

By John Mercury October 6, 2023

President Biden’s top cabinet officials and their Mexican counterparts presented a united front after talks on Thursday to combat drug and gun trafficking, and placed a new emphasis on managing record levels of migration.

The U.S. officials — Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Attorney General Merrick B. Garland — announced that the Biden administration would start deporting Venezuelans who cross into the United States illegally. They said the decision grew out of meetings in Mexico City on Wednesday evening that included officials in Colombia and Panama, which are also receiving Venezuelans fleeing their country’s political and economic turmoil.

The announcement came only three weeks after the administration granted a temporary legal status to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan migrants who had already entered the United States unlawfully.

“We’re charged with taking coordinated actions to try to stabilize flows, to expand regular pathways, to humanely manage all of our borders,” Mr. Blinken said at a news conference with the other officials on Thursday. “Repatriations are a key piece to this balanced approach.”

The administration is facing significant political pressure domestically to stem the arrival of migrants traveling through Mexico and across the border — one of Mr. Biden’s primary political vulnerabilities as the 2024 presidential campaign ramps up.

Each country is also looking to the other to do more to curtail cross-border traffic related to the drug trade: for Mexico, the flow of guns from its northern neighbor, and in the other direction a stream of deadly fentanyl wreaking havoc in communities throughout the United States.

But officials made a point to elevate the significance of the current global migration movement that has strained resources on both sides of the border.

“As neighboring nations, we have witnessed a migratory phenomenon that has reached historic levels,” Alicia Bárcena Ibarra, Mexico’s secretary of foreign affairs, said at the news conference. Mr. Blinken also called the challenges remarkable, but said the two countries were working together “more than ever before in my 30 years” in foreign policy.

Still, disagreements remain. The Biden administration on Thursday waived federal laws so it could construct 17 miles of new border fencing in Texas, even as Mr. Biden himself said that he does not think a border wall is “a serious policy solution.”

Mr. Mayorkas said the new construction does not represent a change in the administration’s policy, but must happen because funding for it was appropriated in 2019 and Congress has denied Biden officials’ requests to spend the money elsewhere.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico has long opposed the construction of a wall, and on Thursday morning, he criticized the Biden administration’s decision.

“This authorization for the construction of the wall is a step backward because it does not solve the problem,” Mr. López Obrador told reporters on Thursday. “We have to address the causes.”

Mexico has pushed the United States to invest more in Latin America to improve conditions in migrants’ home countries.

Mr. Blinken, Mr. Garland and Mr. Mayorkas met privately Thursday morning with Mr. López Obrador and thanked Mexico for extraditing a top leader in the Sinaloa cartel, Ovidio Guzmán López, to the United States last month.

“His extradition is a powerful symbol of what we can accomplish when we work together,” Mr. Garland said after the meeting.

American and Mexican officials have adopted increasingly critical rhetoric over the best way to block the trafficking of the synthetic drug fentanyl, which is driving down life expectancy in the United States. The Biden administration wants Mexican law enforcement to crack down on labs where it is produced.

“The fentanyl being trafficked into the United States is the deadliest drug threat we have ever faced,” Mr. Garland said in a statement to The New York Times on Wednesday. “To fight it, we are going after every link in the cartels’ fentanyl trafficking networks, at every stage, and in every part of the world.”

During their visit, Mr. Garland, Mr. Mayorkas and Mr. Blinken met with a range of Mexican officials, including Mr. López Obrador’s foreign minister, Ms. Bárcena; and his security secretary, Rosa Icela Rodríguez. The Mexican officials urged the Biden administration to do more to keep American made firearms from making it into the hands of the Mexican cartels.

For their part, U.S. officials in recent weeks have pushed Mexico to invest more resources to intercept the chemicals shipped from China to Mexico’s ports and used to make fentanyl.

But Mr. López Obrador has denied fentanyl is made in Mexico and has said his nation should not be blamed for the record number of overdoses in the United States.

“Fortunately, we do not have excessive addictions, drug consumption, like other countries, and that is very good,” Mr. López Obrador said during his regularly scheduled news briefing on Thursday before meeting with the U.S. officials. “We regret what is happening in the United States, which are our brothers but have a consumption of fentanyl that causes 100,000 deaths a year of young people. We do not have that.”

Mr. López Obrador has also bristled at remarks by Republicans in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail, including former President Donald J. Trump, who have proposed military action against cartels in Mexico.

Mexico has been pressing the Biden administration to do more to stop the smuggling of firearms and other weapons from the United States to Mexico. U.S. officials said, however, that American laws make it easy to buy and resell firearms.

As migrants have overwhelmed border communities and cities throughout the United States, the Biden administration has increasingly relied on Mexico and Central American countries to create legal pathways for immigrants and to bolster their own border security to prevent people from making the journey north.

U.S. Border Patrol officials recorded more than 200,000 apprehensions of migrants illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexican border in September, the highest monthly total so far this year. They include about 50,000 apprehensions of Venezuelans, according to an administration official who spoke anonymously to confirm the preliminary data.

Mr. López Obrador recently called for a summit to address migration, specifically for Latin American nations. He snubbed a similar summit hosted by Mr. Biden last year.

As the number of border crossings has soared, so, too, has the criticism against Mr. Biden from members of his own Democratic Party who are straining to provide assistance to migrants arriving in their cities from the border.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois wrote a letter to the president this week saying, “The federal government’s lack of intervention and coordination at the border has created an untenable situation for Illinois.” And New York City’s mayor, Eric Adams, has for months criticized the Biden administration, warning that the tens of thousands of migrants will exhaust municipal resources.

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