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Immigration, Energy, and Security: The Mexico-U.S. Agenda

If Latin America is the backyard of the United States, then Mexico is its gateway. Donald Trump’s administration made this clearer than ever, strengthening Mexico’s ties of subordination and dependence on its neighbor to the north. The first few months of the Biden administration prove that not much has changed.

Pablo Oprinari

April 24, 2021
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Photo: Marco Ugarte/ AP

Since Biden took office in January, the relationship between the United States and Mexico has centered on the pandemic and economic crisis; however, that relationship also remains defined by the big points on their historically joint agenda, from migration and drug trafficking to energy.

The Pressure-Cooker of Immigration

The White House recently announced the departure of former ambassador Roberta Jacobson from her post as “border czar” for the National Security Council under the Biden administration. Although her exit was justified on the grounds that her engagement was limited to the first 100 days of Biden’s presidency, her resignation is no doubt influenced by the intensifying migration crisis and the entry onto the scene of Vice President Kamala Harris.

Migration to the United States has increased in recent months, driven by the economic and health crisis that is sweeping through Central America and the aftermath of natural disasters like Hurricane Eta and Hurricane Iota. The increase is also undoubtedly motivated in part by the promises Biden made on the campaign trail and during the transition period to overhaul the immigration policies of the Trump era. This confluence of factors has opened a crisis, the most visible tip of which are the thousands of migrant children who remain incarcerated in the absolutely inhumane conditions of the detention centers controlled by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency and the Department of Health and Human Services. To realize the scale of this crisis, one need look no further than the fact that in the first three weeks of March alone, more than 11,000 children were detained. As they languish in these horrid detention camps, the illusions that many in Latin America had in Joe Biden’s immigration policies are being swiftly dispelled.

In response to the backlash he is receiving both domestically and internationally, Biden has assigned high-ranking officials, most notably Vice President Kamala Harris, to handle the situation at the border. Harris has already met with Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and announced a trip to Mexico. By putting his second-in-command at the head of this initiative, Biden is trying desperately to resolve a very sensitive issue for a sector of the Democratic Party’s electoral base — specifically the migrant and Latinx community — and defend against the criticism the administration faces from both the Right and Left. 

Republicans argue that Biden’s proposed changes in immigration policy are primarily responsible for the greater influx of migrants. Meanwhile, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party has also opposed Biden’s response to the humanitarian crisis at the border. For example, after Biden retracted his promise to end a Trump-era cap on the number of refugees allowed in the United States in 2021, members of the Squad lampooned the decision. The “progressive” sector of the Democratic Party, in response to the expectations of its voters in the migrant community, is trying to push Biden to enact more sweeping reforms in immigration.

However, the changes the Biden administration has announced in relation to immigration are far from an opening of the border in any way, shape, or form. Despite new rhetoric from the White House — especially compared to Trump’s xenophobic and racist discourse — Biden’s response to thousands of migrants rushing into Mexican border states is not so different from previous administrations, including Trump’s. In February alone, more than 100,000 migrants who crossed the border were deported to Mexico. But the crisis doesn’t just stop at the border; those who manage to escape deportation are forced to work illegally, in ultra-precarious conditions and at the lowest wages of any workers in the United States.

Added to this is the fact that Biden has already shown signs of reneging on his promise to halt construction of the border wall. Further, U.S. diplomatic efforts have led to an increase in militarization in the Latin American countries directly involved in the flow of migrants to the north: an additional 10,000 Mexican troops for immigration control and similar numbers of military personnel in each of the countries of the Northern Triangle of Central America (Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador). The new national guard created under the AMLO administration now acts as an arm of the U.S. border patrol south of the Rio Grande; its purpose is to stop the influx of Central Americans into the United States. Central American governments are playing the same role, as was evident in the Guatemalan government’s repression of the Honduran migrant caravan in early January.

Alongside these measures, the Biden administration is currently promoting a $4 billion “aid” plan for Central American countries. Biden’s initiative, to be carried out in four years, is justified as a commitment to fight “corruption.” But what it really means is a reinforcement of the subordination of the governments of the Central American isthmus to Washington and a stopgap measure to ward off the consequences of the pandemic in these countries. Of course, this aid plan does nothing to address the fact that U.S. domination and imperialist schemes are directly responsible for the deep economic and social crises that are decimating working and poor people in Central America. 

For his part, AMLO, absolutely subordinated to the White House, has supported this plan to contain the influx of migrants, while at the same time proposing that “temporary work visas” be given to those who cross the border to work on particular agricultural projects — a primarily symbolic measure that would not ensure decent working conditions for migrant workers. Both governments agreed on a policy to face the current crisis and that their collective response has deep repercussions for their popularity and the political landscape of their respective countries. Neither wants a repeat of the 2018 migrant caravan that became an international scandal.

Vaccination, Energy Reform, and “Green Capitalism”

In the last month, the U.S. government sent more than 2.7 million Astra Zeneca vaccines to Mexico. Faced with the criticisms of the press, which quickly linked the vaccines to the immigration agreement between the two countries, AMLO and Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard insisted that they were not part of that negotiation. Despite their protestations, the fact is that this is the first shipment of vaccines that Washington has sent to any foreign country. AMLO’s vaccination strategy — which could have a significant impact on the outcome of the upcoming elections in Mexico — depends to a great extent on the collaboration of the White House.

These shipments of vaccines are not for humanitarian reasons. The two countries share nearly 2,000 miles of border. The constant transit of goods and people feeds the economic integration fostered by the Free Trade Agreement (or T-MEC, in its current version). For Washington, this flow cannot be interrupted; it is vital to ensuring that Mexico continues to feed one of the most important international value chains, which is a key part of the recovery of the U.S. economy.

This is what is motivating sectors of the U.S. establishment to propose that the Biden administration take a more active role in the health crisis opened in Mexico by the pandemic. In addition, imperialist collaboration will undoubtedly strengthen the Mexican government’s enforcement of other key agenda items, such as anti-immigrant policy.

Nevertheless, the two countries do not agree on every issue. One of the contentious points on the countries’ joint agenda concerns the energy issue. AMLO’s proposed reform, which limits the actions of private companies and strengthens state control, did not arouse enthusiasm in the U.S. administration. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued a warning in response to the announcement: this legislation “would open the door for the reinstatement of a monopoly in the electricity sector and, we believe, would directly contravene Mexico’s commitments under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA),” since it would conflict with two sections of the treaty, namely those concerning investment and the participation of state-owned companies.

Furthermore, while one of the main arguments of the opponents of the reform is that it would favor fossil fuels over renewable energies, it is well known that the new U.S. administration is inclined towards the latter as a possible focus of new capitalist accumulation. Behind this “environmentalism” is the interference of U.S. and European transnationals in Mexican state-owned companies.

However, the final joint declaration after the most recent meeting between AMLO and Biden states that both leaders “recognized the benefits of reducing short-lived climate pollutants,” saying nothing about this controversial aspect. The United States is evidently interested in putting a limit on the Mexican president’s own campaign promises to undertake greater state stewardship in strategic areas — without of course questioning the principles of openness to private capital — and obtaining greater resources for government coffers.

Despite reservations, everything seems to indicate that the White House will opt to wait for the Mexican courts to bury the energy initiative, or at least to iron out the most problematic aspects for business and transnational companies. If this issue has not fueled an open discussion between both presidents, it is because it is in nobody’s interest to have a complication in the treaty, least of all in the interest of López Obrador, who is betting on the reform bill to reactivate export-oriented production and foreign trade and who has explicitly promised that the proposed reform will not endanger investments or the country’s agreements with Washington.

Sensitive Issues: Security and Drug Trafficking

The other aspect of the relationship between Mexico and the United States revolves around security and drug trafficking. Democratic Party politicians and their friends at the New York Times continue to wring their hands over the climate of “insecurity” and “increased violence” pervasive in Mexico. Democratic representatives have urged their government to pressure AMLO to withdraw part of the military presence from the streets, contradicting the fact that Mexico’s national guard exists to guarantee the very immigration control being called for by Biden and all sectors of the political establishment.

It’s clear that the U.S. regime is following the drug trade in Mexico and its political effects very closely, perhaps preparing for further intervention. A recent White House report highlighted recent attacks on journalists and politicians in Mexico, linking the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) to the attack against the Secretary of Public Security of Mexico City, Omar García Harfuch, and to the assassination of Aristóteles Sandoval, the former governor of Jalisco. This focus on two high-profile events that received widespread international attention forced AMLO to respond directly to the United States’ comments in his morning press conferences.

Further, these warnings and reports from the U.S. government regarding the cartel follow closely on the heels of the imprisonment of General Salvador Cienfuegos in the United States last year. He was finally released under pressure from the Mexican government in late 2020. Overall, these comments and reports are evidence of a renewed intervention by the White House in the so-called “war on drugs.”

Undoubtedly, under AMLO’s government, both militarization and attacks against journalists — particularly against independent journalists — have continued and intensified. But the comments by U.S. officials are clearly an attempt to interfere in Mexico’s affairs. Unlike the past Republican administration, Biden’s government does so under the guise of moderation and “respect for democracy.” But what is really behind this intervention is the quest for greater control over drug trafficking, particularly with respect to the cartels, who are capable of generating greater instability in Mexico and sneaking across the border.

Overall, these key issues are of great importance to the Biden administration, both because they already have a real impact on domestic policy, as in the case of the immigration issue, and in terms of establishing greater control over the United States’ backyard, where the actions of the Mexican government play a central role. This is part of a more active policy towards Latin America, in which the United States seeks to strengthen its imperialist hegemony in a scenario characterized by the international economic and health crises and by disputes with other powers like China.

Until now, the Mexican government has combined its collaboration in fundamental areas with maintaining a rhetoric aimed at highlighting the “sovereign” character of its political decisions, even when these coincide with the wishes of the White House. However, beyond the speeches, Mexico’s economic dependence and subordination — in many areas, from immigration to security and drug trafficking — remains.

Faced with this, it is crucial to put forward — on both sides of the border — an anti-imperialist and internationalist perspective, led by the workers and staunchly independent of bourgeois governments. It is the powerful multi-ethnic U.S. working class — made up of teachers, Amazon workers, healthcare workers, and the youth who led protests during the pandemic — together with the Mexican working class and other oppressed sectors, who can lead the defense of the rights of migrants. This fight must begin with free movement and full rights for all, the renationalization  of the entire energy sector without compensation, the non-payment of the foreign debt, and the end of militarization mandated by imperialism.


Originally published on April 18, 2021 in La Izquierda Diario, Mexico

Translation by Madeleine Freeman

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Pablo Oprinari

Pablo is a sociologist from Mexico City and a leader of the Socialist Workers Movement (MTS).


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