Ahead of a planned visit by Vice President Kamala Harris, the Biden administration wants Mexico to send back more immigrants turned around by the US, take back additional families expelled by border agents, and do more to prevent Mexican airports from being used as pit stops for migration routes, according to government documents obtained by BuzzFeed News.
The White House has asked that Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas discuss the requests with Mexican officials before Harris arrives in Mexico early next week, according to draft government documents. Mayorkas is also planning to go to Mexico later in June. Department of Homeland Security officials declined to comment.
For years, US officials have wanted Mexico to increase its enforcement and turn back immigrants on their way to the border. For its part, the Biden administration has been focused on framing the ongoing discussions with Mexico on dealing with the root causes of migration, building up the relationship between the two countries, and finding ways to work together on key issues like human trafficking and trade. Unlike the Trump White House, Biden officials do not want to focus their talks with Mexico entirely on migration issues and have repeatedly publicized the range of topics the countries have discussed.
"The goal of the vice president's trip is to deepen our strategic partnership and bilateral relationship with both the Guatemalan and Mexican governments to advance a comprehensive strategy to tackle the causes of migration," said Symone Sanders, chief spokesperson for Harris, according to CNN. "We will also engage community leaders, workers, young innovators and entrepreneurs, and others about ways to provide economic security, address the core factors of migration, and to give people the hope for a better life at home.”
Harris began her initiative with Mexico and Central American countries to address immigration after increased levels of unaccompanied children arrived at the US border this spring, leading to overcrowding in Border Patrol facilities. In recent weeks, the administration has relieved much of that overcrowding, bringing the number of unaccompanied children in custody down to just over 700.
But the issue of immigration and the number of people passing through Mexico on their way north continues to be a main focus within the US government. In May, BuzzFeed News reported that US officials had discussed asking Mexico to commit to measures to decrease the number of immigrants trying to cross the southern border in the run-up to a virtual meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
It appears that some of the talks have already led to changes: Mexico has recently started flying immigrants turned around by US border agents under a Trump-era public health order to southern Mexico to make it easier to send them back to their home countries, according to the documents.
“What we've seen Mexico do in recent months is enter into an informal agreement with the United States to significantly expand immigration enforcement along the Mexico–Guatemala border. At this point, these types of arrangements reaffirm Mexico's emergence as a state that serves US enforcement interests in the region,” said Cris Ramón, a global migration researcher based in Washington, DC.
Department of Homeland Security officials have spent much of the year contending with rising numbers of unaccompanied children and immigrants arriving at the southern border. More than 172,000 immigrants crossed over from Mexico in March, the highest level in at least 15 years, though many of them were quickly turned back under Title 42, a rarely used public health law invoked by former president Trump during the pandemic.
Documents obtained by BuzzFeed News show that DHS was informed that the Biden White House wanted Mayorkas to tell Mexican officials the US government wants more to be done, including increasing arrests of those coming through Mexico on their way to the US and stepping up enforcement at airports regarding people who use Mexico’s visa policies to get to the US border. Harris, according to the documents, raised similar requests in her meeting with the Mexican president in May.
In recent months, US officials have also seen a rise in the number of immigrants from Brazil heading to the border. To that end, US officials want Mexico to reconsider its visa policies for the South American country.
How to handle the influx of immigrant families at the border has also been a major issue. While Biden officials have implemented a new policy to place families crossing the border into a fast-tracked immigration court process, they continue to want Mexico to take more families from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador who were expelled by border agents.
The number of families crossing the southern border and being allowed to stay in the US has increased after Mexican officials passed a law prohibiting undocumented immigrant children from being held in their detention centers. With no space to hold the families in US facilities, and Mexico refusing to take them back, they’ve started to be released in Texas border cities.
In April, Biden said he was negotiating with the president of Mexico to address the issue.
“I think we are going to see that can change,” he said, adding that the families "should all be going back” and that only unaccompanied children would be the exception.
Ramón, the migration expert, said Mexico was stepping up enforcement for other reasons as well, including the fact that officials there are facing domestic pressures to address the increase in migration from Central America and other regions.
“So it's not simply limiting its political and policy calculations to responding to US concerns on this issue,” Ramón said.
US officials have also discussed announcing several initiatives with Mexico following the Harris meeting, including additional funding for labor protections, adding investment to southern Mexico, and working together to help solve the tens of thousands of missing person cases and disappearances in the country.
Following the meeting in May between Harris and the Mexican president, White House officials said the conversation ranged from migration to economic issues.
“They underscored the important partnership between our two countries and recognized the need to work together to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, build climate resilience and expand economic opportunity and security cooperation,” officials said.