By WILL WEISSERT and ZEKE MILLER
WASHINGTON (AP) — Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador agreed to spend $1.5 billion to improve “smart” border technology during meetings Tuesday with President Joe Biden — a move the White House says shows neighborly cooperation succeeding where Trump administration vows to wall off the border and have Mexico pay for it could not.
A person familiar with a series of agreements the two countries hammered out as their leaders met in Washington said they also called for other things like expanding the number of work visas the U.S. issues and welcoming more refugees. They also would continue joint patrols for Mexico and Guatemala to hunt human smugglers along their shared border.
The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because the agreement hadn’t been formally announced. But the Biden administration was excited about securing border funding from Mexico after years of failed attempts by former President Donald Trump.
The agreements came hours after the meetings began with López Obrador offering more than half an hour worth of comments. He touched on everything from Americans heading south for cheaper prices at the pump at Mexican gas stations to the New Deal politics of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, while chiding conservatives and saying the U.S. and Mexico should reject the “status quo” on the border.
López Obrador said both countries “should close ranks to help each other” amid spiking inflation and border challenges brutally underscored by 53 migrants who died last month after being abandoned in a sweltering tractor-trailer on a remote back road in San Antonio.
Though in the past he’s not shied away from U.S. criticism, López Obrador struck a positive tone with Biden while heaping praise on Vice President Kamala Harris.
Biden was equally conciliatory, saying, “I see, we see Mexico as an equal partner” and shrugging off differences of opinion on policy with López Obrador, “You and I have a strong and productive relationship and I would argue a partnership.”
That was a departure from last month, when López Obrador declined Biden’s invitation to the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles after unsuccessfully urging the U.S. to include the leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela — all countries with anti-democratic regimes.
The Mexican leader also has called U.S. support for Ukraine in its war with Russia “a crass error” and criticized the U.S. for moving more swiftly to provide military funding to Ukraine than financial aid to Central America.
Speaking of the migrant deaths in Texas — which included people from Mexico and Central America — Biden said “we know we have to meet these challenges together.” He said the U.S. and Mexico agree on the need to increase opportunities for legal migration, especially since more workers can help alleviate U.S. labor shortages and potentially help calm rising prices.
“This is a proven strategy that fuels economic growth as well as reduces irregular migration,” Biden said.
Immigration has been a political flashpoint for Biden as top Republicans have pointed to a rising number of people from Mexico and Central America crossing the southern U.S. border illegally while slamming the administration and top Democrats for not doing more to slow it. López Obrador acknowledged those criticisms, but said the situation at the border will require solutions, not just politics.
“The way out is not through conservatism. The way out it through transformation,” he said. “Transform, not maintain the status quo.”
Tuesday’s was the second in-person meeting between Biden and López Obrador at the White House. First lady Jill Biden hosted Mexican first lady Beatriz Gutiérrez Müller during this spring’s White House celebration of Cinco de Mayo.
The discussions come just before Biden leaves for Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia.
A series of agreements announced by the Biden administration pledged joint actions to modernize and improve infrastructure along key parts of their 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) border, enhance law enforcement cooperation against fentanyl smuggling and promote clean energy.
Biden said that a “major anti smuggling operation” against fentanyl traffickers has been underway since April and had led to more than 3,000 arrests.
Despite broad agreement on attempting to increase legal migration, the Biden administration has been less clear about how much it’ll urge Mexico to stop people heading through its territory to then cross into the U.S. illegally. That was a key demand of Trump.
Vice President Kamala Harris, who has been tasked with exploring the root causes of immigration across Latin America, also hosted López Obrador for a Tuesday breakfast that featured mutual kind words. Speaking with Mexico’s president outside the Naval Observatory, which is the vice president’s residence, Harris referenced her past visits to his country.
“The time that I spent with you in Mexico was so special to me,” she said, noting the “friendship that has been so important to both nations.”
“She is our friend,” López Obrador said. “But also a woman with principles. An intelligent woman. Honest. She is a partisan of equality. So I congratulate the American people because they have a first order vice president. … We have always been speaking for the benefit of our peoples and both of our nations. Today we are going to do exactly the same thing.”
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