Mexico: Challenges for U.S. Policymakers in 2021

Mexico: Challenges for U.S. Policymakers
in 2021

Updated March 25, 2021
Mexico, a top U.S. trade partner and neighbor, could play a key role in addressing several chal enges
facing U.S. policymakers in 2021. During a virtual meeting on March 1, President Andrés Manuel López
Obrador and President Biden committed to collaborate on bilateral and regional migration issues and on
Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) response and recovery, while reaffirming the importance of
security cooperation. High-level officials from both countries held migration talks on March 23 focused
on addressing root causes of migration and determining steps Mexico could take to interdict some U.S.-
bound migrant flows. President Biden also is asking Mexico to accept migrant families expel ed under
current pandemic-related restrictions on asylum processing.
The Trump Administration’s approach to Mexico de-emphasized human rights and corruption concerns in
favor of a narrow focus on migration control. Under the threat of U.S. tariffs, the López Obrador
administration accommodated U.S. border and asylum policy changes that shifted the burden of
interdicting migrants and hosting asylum seekers from the United States to Mexico. Many human rights
advocates expressed serious concerns about U.S. policies, however, and Mexico had limited resources for
deterring and hosting primarily Central American migrants.
President Biden has announced executive actions on immigration, many of which revise restrictive
policies implemented by the Trump Administration. President Biden also proposed a comprehensive
immigration reform bil , introduced as the U.S. Citizenship Act (S. 348/H.R. 1177). As the top country of
origin for unauthorized immigrants in the United States, Mexico—which received $40 bil ion in
in 2020, could benefit from pathways to legal status included in that and other bil s. The
Biden Administration has asked Mexico for assistance with securing its borders, as a surge in migrants
from Central America is overwhelming U.S. agencies’ processing capacity at the Southwest Border.
Until pandemic-related restrictions, Mexico has received non-Mexican adults expel ed by U.S. officials.
Mexico has not accepted non-Mexican unaccompanied children and families at some ports of entry due to
a reform of its immigration law that took effect in January. The reform bars Mexico from detaining
children, accompanied or unaccompanied, in immigration detention facilities, requiring them instead to
go to children’s shelters. Amid a deep recession and budget austerity, Mexico has limited capacity to
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fulfil these aims; it reportedly has failed to protect some migrants from abuses and to respond to
increased alien smuggling.
Some advocates have urged U.S. policymakers to bolster Mexico’s asylum system, encourage Mexican
and U.S. investment in Central America, and ensure the wel -being of migrants awaiting U.S. immigration
proceedings in Mexico as the Migration Protection Protocols (MPP) are phased out. Others have urged a
restoration of MPP, which required non-Mexican migrants to await their immigration proceedings in
Mexico, and other restrictions on migration.
Pandemic Response and Economic Recovery
With over 199,627 deaths as of March 25, 2021, Mexico has the third-highest number of COVID-19
deaths worldwide. The Mexican government’s pandemic response has been widely criticized. Whereas
prior influenza outbreaks led to the creation of bilateral U.S.-Mexico and trilateral (with Canada) health
cooperation frameworks, COVID-19 has revealed new chal enges on this front; issues include how to
ensure the stability of supply chains and the safety of workers employed in essential industries, coordinate
border closures, disseminate research and information, and secure vaccine supplies. On March 19, 2021,
the same day Mexico closed its southern border, the United States announced it would share 2.5 mil ion
doses of Astra Zeneca’s COVID-19 vaccines with Mexico.
Prospects for Mexico’s economy—which declined 0.3% in 2019 and 9% in 2020—remain uncertain. The
Mexican government has devoted less than 1% of gross domestic product to economic stimulus measures,
and widespread vaccine coverage is not expected until mid-2022. Mexico seeks to leverage the United
States-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Agreement (USMCA) to entice investors to relocate from China, but
some investors remain concerned about Mexico’s poor investment climate under President López
Obrador. Some observers point to Presidents Biden and López Obrador’s pledge to restart an Obama-era
high-level economic dialogue as positive for economic cooperation. Nevertheless, enforcement issues
regarding USMCA’s labor provisions, trade disputes, and/or U.S. concerns that Mexico’s energy policies
may violate the USMCA could hinder bilateral economic relations.
Countering Drugs
U.S.-Mexican security cooperation has expanded significantly under the Mérida Initiative, a U.S. antidrug
and rule-of-law assistance program through which Congress has provided some $3.2 bil ion to Mexico
since FY2007. Relations have been strained, however, since the October 2020 U.S. arrest of former
Mexican defense minister Salvador Cienfuegos on drug trafficking charges. The United States ultimately
agreed to release Cienfuegos to Mexico, where authorities dropped al charges against him in January
2021, and Mexico’s Congress enacted legislation limiting U.S. law enforcement operations in Mexico.
The Drug Enforcement Administration’s 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment, issued in March 2021,
asserts that Mexican drug trafficking organizations are “increasingly responsible for producing and
supplying fentanyl to the U.S. market.” Amid surging U.S. demand during the pandemic, drug trafficking-
related violence remained elevated in Mexico even as violence and crime declined in other countries.
Increased U.S. overdoses and drug trafficking and organized crime-related homicides in Mexico,
combined with current tensions in relations, have led many to question the Mérida Initiative’s efficacy.
Many experts assert that past antidrug efforts have failed and new strategies are needed, but mutual
mistrust and new regulations governing how U.S. agents operate in Mexico could limit policy options .
Whereas the López Obrador government likely would welcome increased U.S. efforts to combat weapons
trafficking or money laundering, it could be hesitant to accept U.S. attempts to improve Mexico’s
military-led security strategy or human rights record. Some analysts suggest trust-building efforts to
repair security relations through a high-level security dialogue; others suggest a unilateral U.S. approach,

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involving further indictments of Mexican officials, suspension of some Mérida aid, and a halt on
extraditions to Mexico.
Also see CRS Report R42917, Mexico: Background and U.S. Relations, and CRS Report R44981, The
United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

Author Information

Clare Ribando Seelke

Specialist in Latin American Affairs

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