Natalie Kitroeff, New York Times, March 18, 2021
The United States plans to send millions of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Mexico and Canada, the White House said Thursday, a notable step into vaccine diplomacy just as the Biden administration is quietly pressing Mexico to curb the stream of migrants coming to the border.
The announcement of the vaccine distribution came at a critical time in negotiations with Mexico. President Biden has moved quickly to dismantle some of former President Trump’s signature immigration policies, halting construction of a border wall, stopping the swift expulsion of children at the border and proposing a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants in the United States.
But he is clinging to a central element of Mr. Trump’s agenda: relying on Mexico to restrain a wave of people making their way to the United States.
Anticipating a surge of migrants and the most apprehensions by American agents at the border in two decades, Mr. Biden asked President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico in a video call this month whether more could be done to help solve the problem, according to Mexican officials and another person briefed on the conversation.
The two presidents also discussed the possibility of the United States sending Mexico some of its surplus vaccine supply, a senior Mexican official said. Mexico has publicly asked the Biden administration to send it doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Mexican officials also say the efforts to secure vaccines are separate from the negotiations over migration, and rejected the notion that a quid pro quo was involved.
But Mexican officials acknowledge that relations between the United States and Mexico, which has suffered one of the world’s deadliest coronavirus epidemics, would be buoyed by a shipment of doses south.
Mexico has agreed to increase its presence on its southern border with Guatemala to deter migration from Central America, one of the government officials said, and local Mexican officials say their country has recently stepped up efforts to stop migrants on the northern border with the United States as well.
But there are also signs that Mexico’s commitment to policing migration — a central demand of Mr. Trump, who wielded the threat of tariffs against all Mexican goods unless migration was curbed — may have flagged in the waning months of the Trump administration.
From October through December of last year, the number of Central Americans apprehended by Mexico declined, while detentions by American agents increased, according to Mexican government numbers and data compiled by The Washington Office on Latin America, a research organization that pushes for human rights.
“The likelihood of the outgoing Trump administration threatening tariffs again was low, so there was an incentive for Mexico to go back to its default state of low apprehensions,” said Adam Isacson, an expert on border security at The Washington Office on Latin America.
The Biden administration’s appeal to do more against migration has put Mexico in a difficult position. While Mr. Trump strong-armed Mexico into militarizing the border, some Mexican officials argue that his harsh policies may have at times helped lessen their load by deterring migrants from attempting to make the journey north.
Mr. Biden is less likely to resort to threats of tariffs to get his way, officials and analyst say. But now Mexico is being asked to hold the line against a surge of migrants — while the Biden administration is signaling that the United States is more welcoming to migrants.
“They get to look like the good guys and the Mexicans look like the bad guys,” said Cris Ramón, an immigration consultant based in Washington, D.C.
With Mexico, the Biden administration has been urging the country to accept more families expelled by American authorities, and to increase enforcement at Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, according to two Mexican officials and two others briefed on the discussions.
Mr. López Obrador is also trying to find a way to increase capacity to house migrants in shelters, which are bursting at the seams. In a Tuesday statement, the secretary for homeland security, Alejandro Mayorkas, said he was working with Mexico to do that.
Local government officials in Ciudad Juárez and shelter operators say Mexico is dialing up operations to capture and deport migrants along the northern border. On a near daily basis, two of them said, Mexican authorities are stopping vans stuffed with families and pickup trucks carrying livestock — along with migrants crouching on the floor to avoid detection.
Part of the reason Mexico is willing to continue cracking down is that, despite being a country that has long sent people north, there is a lot of resentment toward Central American migrants.
“The level of negative attitudes that we have toward migrant flows has gone up, so there won’t be a political cost” for Mr. López Obrador, said Tonatiuh Guillén, who ran Mexico’s National Migration Institute in the first half of 2019. “But with Trump, we negotiated nothing — we gave them a lot and they didn’t give us anything back,” he added, arguing that the strategy should be different with Mr. Biden.