Mexico and the United States clash over Biden’s approval of more border wall construction

The announcement of 20 new miles of fencing comes as Blinken and Mayorkas visit the country, and increases pressure on the U.S. president ahead of the 2024 elections.

Border wall between the United States and Mexico; Sunland Park, New Mexico; October 5, 2023.
Border wall between the United States and Mexico; Sunland Park, New Mexico; October 5, 2023.JOSE LUIS GONZALEZ (REUTERS)
Elías Camhaji

The Mexican and United States delegations entered Mexico’s National Palace, apologizing for the delay. After a lunch that lasted longer than expected, six high-ranking officials from both countries approached the dais to conclude two days of work and hold a press conference on the latest progress on the security agenda. During the meeting, they discussed a more aggressive strategy against fentanyl precursor chemicals, expediting criminal boss extraditions, increasing information exchange to stop arms trafficking, and taking decisive action against human trafficking networks. However, the topic that drew the most questions from reporters was the newly authorized funding for a border wall extension in south Texas. This turn of events cast a shadow over the meeting, prompting Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to hastily offer explanations to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the media.

“The Mexican government is absolutely opposed to any type of wall,” said Mexico’s Foreign Minister Alicia Bárcena, reacting to the surprise announcement by the Department of Homeland Security. Bárcena acknowledged the ongoing dialogue with the White House to address the migration crisis while resisting pressure from hardliners on both sides of the border. “We build bridges, not walls. We’re not about buoys and fences – we believe in working together,” she stated elegantly. “The timing of that announcement unfortunately coincided with the US visit.”

Anticipating controversy, Mayorkas issued a statement 30 minutes before the press conference. “From day one, this Administration has made clear that a border wall is not the answer... The construction project reported today was appropriated during the prior administration in 2019 and the law requires the government to use these funds for this purpose.” President Biden conveyed the same message a few hours earlier at the White House, explaining that resources allocated to the wall during the previous administration’s tenure couldn’t be reappropriated for other purposes without Congressional approval. “We had no choice,” said Mayorkas, echoing the president’s words.

Mexican Foreign Minister Alicia Bárcena and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken; October 5, 2023; Mexico City.
Mexican Foreign Minister Alicia Bárcena and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken; October 5, 2023; Mexico City. José Méndez (EFE)

The next day, López Obrador provided a more detailed account of his closed-door meeting with Blinken and acknowledged the explanations offered by the White House. To prevent controversy and avoid fueling anti-Mexico rhetoric in the US, the Mexican president downplayed the announcement. López Obrador said it was “taken out of context,” and that he was confident the new wall section would not be erected. US Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar shared a similar view at an October 6 press conference: “There are historic times of cooperation between Mexico and the United States with tough challenges. That’s why we must work together... We’re not going to get distracted by a little piece [of wall].”

According to Roberto Zepeda, an expert on North America with the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the border wall announcement is a subtle message from Washington to the López Obrador government. “Biden has been heavily criticized for his handling of the relationship with Mexico. It’s like he’s saying, ‘Hey, we really need you to do more.’ They say there are no coincidences in politics. They talk a good game and focus on appearances, but at the end of the day, actions always speak louder than words.”

When the approval to extend the border wall was posted in the US Federal Register, Mayorkas initially struck a different tone. “There is presently an acute and immediate need to construct physical barriers and roads in the vicinity of the border of the United States in order to prevent unlawful entries into the United States.” More than 20 laws, regulations and other legal requirements hindering the construction project were also waived. Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, says that Mayorkas, who is currently facing scrutiny amid record-high immigrant detentions, aimed to “send a clear message about border control and reinforce that the border is not wide open.”

“Talking about a 32-kilometer (20 mile) section of wall on a border spanning over 3,000 kilometers isn’t a big deal, although the timing is interesting,” said Selee. The migration expert noted that the announcement of the wall project coincided with another report that the US will resume mass deportations of Venezuelans, another sign of tighter border controls. “It’s a sensitive issue for Biden. While these actions resonate with the average US voter on managing migration, they also provoke discontent among various Democratic Party factions.”

The surprise announcement not only ambushed the high-level US delegation to Mexico, it also sparked sniping from both friends and foes. “Will Joe Biden apologize to me and America for taking so long to get moving, and allowing our country to be flooded with 15 million illegal immigrants?” Trump posted on his social network. Meanwhile, Biden allies like US Representative Henry Cuéllar (D-TX) described the wall as “a 14th-century solution.” Several Hispanic and progressive lawmakers also expressed their “disappointment” with the president’s decision. “No one likes it – neither the radicals nor the moderates,” said Roberto Zepeda.

Calls for a more assertive approach to the migration crisis are coming from both parties. “Biden is being pressured by both Republicans and Democrats, and his latest decisions seem to be driven by his low approval ratings” said Selee. President Biden is perceived as weak and is under heavy pressure from Republicans, says Zepeda, so his hardening policies are understandable. Other examples of Biden’s toughening stance are the inclusion of migration in the latest US-Mexico High-Level Security Dialogue and the recent deployment of 800 troops to reinforce border security.

“Mexico is highly aware of US political dynamics, which is why this visit was handled with great diplomatic sensitivity,” said Zepeda. Hardline candidates in the US elections next year will continue to attack López Obrador’s security policies and Biden’s approach to migration and the fentanyl crisis, major issues for the US that involve Mexico. “Let us not forget that everything we’re doing is an unprecedented effort. Nonetheless, the size of the issue must also render results of the corresponding magnitude,“ said Secretary Blinken at the final press conference for talks that ended on a difficult note.

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