President Biden hosted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico at the White House on Thursday, a diplomatic mission of three leaders trying to project a united front amid trade scuffles, accusations of American protectionism and concerns over a surge of migration toward the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We can meet all of the challenges if we just take the time to speak with one another,” Mr. Biden said during a meeting with both leaders on Thursday evening. “As leaders, we share an innate understanding that our diversity is an enormous strength, that we are best able to unleash our potential when we unleash the full range of our people’s talents.”
The return of the summit after a five-year hiatus during the Trump administration signaled an increased interest among North American leaders to show a sense of strategic and economic solidarity amid a rise in competition from Asia and Europe. The gathering also came at a critical moment for the United States, as the breakdown in global supply chains and the mass movement of people across the Americas have made cooperation with Mexico and Canada more vital than ever.
The leaders agreed on Thursday to form a working group to address regional supply chain issues, including a steady supply of critical minerals, and they struck an agreement to share vaccines. But thornier questions, including what to do about surging numbers of migrants, went unanswered.
Mr. Biden’s advisers said the leaders would discuss humane ways to address the root causes that drive people to the border and address the flow of fentanyl and other drugs. But they also said the group would not talk about policies that have become flash points for immigration activists, including a program that forces some asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases are pending.
When asked how the problem of migration could be discussed without mentioning those programs, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters that pending litigation prevented the policy, known as Remain in Mexico, from being openly discussed. “But certainly migration will be,” she said, “as will every step that can be taken to reduce the number of people who are coming to the border.”
“At the end of the day, getting back together will give the right impression,” said Tony Payan, the director of the Mexico Center at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “The bad news is that the issues are many and thorny.”
No accords were expected in the continuing disagreements over how each country has handled its trade commitments. Since Mr. Biden took office, the details of that Trump-era revision of the North American Free Trade Agreement — called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement — have been in dispute. The accord sought to update Mexico’s labor laws, encourage more auto production in North America and open Canadian markets for American dairy farmers.
In recent weeks, the Canadian government has argued that the tax credit offered to American consumers who buy U.S.-made electric vehicles is in breach of the accord. Speaking to reporters in a news conference on Monday, Mr. Trudeau said that the Biden administration’s buy-American ethos was “counterproductive” to promoting commerce between the two countries.
“We don’t view it that way,” Ms. Psaki said to reporters on Thursday. “In our view, the electric vehicle tax credit is an opportunity to help consumers in this country.”
President Biden said on Thursday that the United States was considering a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing amid growing pressure to hold China accountable for human rights abuses.
The boycott would mean that no U.S. government officials would attend the Games, which are slated to begin in February, though it would not prevent U.S. athletes from competing.
As he met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, Mr. Biden responded to a reporter’s question about the potential for a diplomatic boycott by saying it was “something we are considering.”
The comment came after hawkish Republicans have for months called for the administration to use the Olympics as an opportunity to punish China over human rights violations. In a call this week with China’s leader, Xi Jinping, Mr. Biden raised concerns about abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, according to a White House statement, as well as Beijing’s economic policies that the administration has sought to make a focus of its foreign policy strategy.
But the two leaders did not discuss the Beijing Olympics earlier this week.
“They didn’t talk about the Olympics during the meeting,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said on Thursday. “We see it through the prism of competition, not conflict, that is our objective.”
But Ms. Psaki acknowledged “we do have concern,” noting the human rights abuses. “I want to leave the president the space to make decisions,” she said.
Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, who ran the committee that organized the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, called in March for an economic and diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Olympics for China’s human rights abuses against Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region and its crackdown on protesters and journalists in Hong Kong. Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, called on Thursday for a total boycott of the event.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California has also called for the president to withhold a U.S. delegation from attending, although she has said athletes should be able to compete.
When the three leaders meet on Thursday, a series of issues will be on the table. Here’s what President Biden, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico are expected to discuss.
In recent weeks, the Canadian government has argued that the tax credit offered to American consumers who buy U.S.-made electric vehicles is a breach of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Speaking to reporters in a news conference on Monday, Mr. Trudeau said that the Biden administration’s buy-American ethos was “counterproductive” to promoting commerce between the two countries.
The Biden administration has accused the Canadian government of practices that favor Canadian dairy farmers and raised concerns that Mexico’s energy policies give an unfair advantage to state-owned companies. U.S. officials said on Wednesday that Mr. Biden planned to reaffirm U.S.M.C.A. provisions in support of labor rights protection, a reference to a dispute settled against Mexico this year.
Officials expect agreements to be reached over vaccine sharing. Leaders in Canada and Mexico will agree to share “millions” of doses with poorer countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, an official said. The three countries will sign onto a pact to reduce methane emissions in the oil and gas industries by as much as 75 percent by 2030 and form a working group to address supply chain issues.
The more delicate discussions will come with Mr. López Obrador. Mr. Biden has had to rely ever more on Mexico to keep the flow of people from overwhelming the border and to house tens of thousands of migrants who might head north. For Biden officials, the importance of maintaining strong Mexican enforcement was made clear in September, when thousands of Haitians walked across the border to Texas.
Mr. Biden’s dependence on Mexico has put the fate of a key piece of his domestic agenda in the hands of Mr. López Obrador, who has lashed out at the United States and pursued policies that counter American interests. Mr. López Obrador’s government has sought to jail university professors, gutted funding for civic organizations, attacked journalists by name at national news conferences and championed a constitutional reform that would ensure the dominance of the state-owned electricity giant in Mexico’s energy market.
Just this week, Mr. López Obrador skewered the U.S. embargo on Cuba as “vile” and attacked the Biden administration for helping to fund Mexican news groups that he described as “opposition publications.” (The president previously said that American financing for Mexican civil society amounted to “promoting a coup mentality.”)
As the leaders of the United States, Mexico and Canada met in Washington on Thursday, one economic issue was at the top of the agenda: the supply chains that carry raw materials, parts and products around North America.
President Biden, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico plan to start a working group focused on North American supply chain issues, including a steady supply of critical minerals, a senior U.S. administration official told reporters on Wednesday.
The United States and Mexico set up a bilateral group in September aimed at working through supply chain disruptions and attracting new manufacturing to North America. Canada this year published a list of minerals that are critical to its economy, including nickel, cobalt and lithium, which are used to produce high-capacity batteries.
Companies with complex supply chains across borders have found it difficult to ensure a steady supply of components needed to make their products. U.S. auto manufacturers in particular were forced to slow or stop production as Mexico last year shuttered all nonessential businesses — including auto parts manufacturing — as it tried to control the coronavirus.
With extensive shipping delays complicating the ability of companies to bring products from China, some North American government officials and industry analysts have called for moving supply chains back to the continent, a trend known as “near-shoring.”
But that is easier said than done. Many companies say that China’s vast ecosystem of factories is still the easiest place to manufacture their products. And North America faces its own transportation issues, like slowdowns in rail shipping and a shortage of truckers.
In an event at The Atlantic Council on Tuesday, Martha Bárcena Coqui, the former ambassador of Mexico to the United States, said that North American countries needed to build on their effort to keep supply chains open and operating during the pandemic and to bring more investment from Asia.
“The U.S. alone cannot be competitive vis-à-vis China,” she said. “The main challenge in this very moment is to increase the competitiveness of the North American region.”
More than 70 human rights and immigration advocacy organizations on Wednesday pressed President Biden and his counterparts from Canada and Mexico to discuss what they described as “cruel, ineffective and unlawful” immigration policies. In a letter to the three leaders, the groups said the policies have subjected asylum seekers to inadequate living conditions and significant safety risks.
The groups singled out Mexico’s policy of keeping migrants in the state where they made their asylum request — most often in poor areas on the country’s southern border and violence-ridden spots dominated by drug cartels along the northern border.
They also pointed to the Biden administration’s continued use of a public health rule put in place at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic that allows officials to turn away asylum seekers, as well as a policy that forces migrants to wait in Mexico until officials decide their cases.
Senior administration officials said before the summit meeting that they would not talk about those policies, even though they are hard to separate from addressing migration trends, which the leaders are expected to discuss.
“Our organizations are gravely concerned that, despite the stated commitments of your administrations to safe, humane and orderly migration management that upholds respect for human rights, the United States and Mexico’s recent immigration policies and practices illustrate a cruel, ineffective and unlawful deterrence-based approach that flouts and subverts international refugee and human rights law,” the organizations wrote in the letter.
The migration patterns that have driven a record number of people to try to reach the United States in the past 10 months are expected to continue as they flee violence and poverty. Many migrants are from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Cuba, Venezuela and Haiti; the organizations said that Haitian migrants faced the additional challenge of anti-Black racism.
The United States recently used the contentious public health rule, known as Title 42, to expel more than 8,000 Haitians who crossed the country’s southern border illegally, drawing international criticism. Haitian asylum seekers make up a majority of applicants in Mexico; at least 20,000 Haitians are currently stranded in the southern city of Tapachula.
“Collaborating to protect migrants would be vastly more effective in addressing migration challenges than misguided deterrence measures that return people to harm,” the groups wrote.
A revised North American trade agreement has been in effect more than one year, but relations between the United States, Canada and Mexico are still peppered with trade disagreements, some new and some very familiar.
The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which updated and replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta, when it went into effect last July, has provided a new framework for the countries’ trade relations, including a new mechanism to challenge labor violations at factories in Mexico and new rules to govern e-commerce and the digital economy.
But it has not dispelled trade spats themselves. As President Biden, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico meet on Thursday, there are plenty of trade irritants to discuss, including longstanding rifts over rules for car manufacturing, Mexico’s treatment of the energy industry and Canada’s policies for American dairy.
One of the biggest issues for Canada and Mexico is a tax credit in the expansive social spending bill currently being considered by Congress that would benefit American production of electric vehicles.
This kind of “Buy American provision” has been favored by both Democrats and Republicans, and the Biden administration says it will help to build out an important American industry. But the provision could be challenged under U.S.M.C.A., or at the World Trade Organization, for giving imports less favorable treatment than domestic products.
Kenneth N. Frankel, the president of the Canadian Council for the Americas, called it “the return of more irritants that we had hoped had gone away from the Canadian perspective.” By the year 2026, clean cars would have to be assembled in the United States to be eligible for tax credits, he said during an event hosted on Tuesday by the Atlantic Council, a think tank.
“That’s not particularly wonderful from a Canadian perspective,” he said. “Once again, we’re back to one of the original things that we talked about at the beginning of the last round of Nafta.”
The United States, Canada and Mexico also continue to quibble over how to interpret U.S.M.C.A. rules governing where parts of a car need to be made to qualify for the pact’s preferential trade terms.
Under U.S.M.C.A., 75 percent of the value of a car must be made in North America to qualify for tariff-free trade in the region, up from 62.5 percent in the previous agreement. The agreement contains other rules for sourcing auto parts and metals. In August, Mexico requested consultations with the United States about its interpretation of the auto manufacturing rules.
Earlier this year, the Biden administration requested its own dispute settlement panel under the agreement to review Canada’s treatment of American dairy products, another longstanding issue of contention. The U.S. alleges that Canada is improperly allocating quotas to its dairy industry in a way that unfairly limits U.S. exports.
Another major issue is constitutional reform measures on the table in Mexico that would favor state-owned energy companies and which critics say would undermine private investment in the renewable energy sector.
Foreign investors in Mexico have long been concerned about unequal treatment and even the risk of expropriation, when the government seizes private assets. That’s why the revised North American trade agreement preserved a special system of arbitration for foreign investors in Mexico’s energy market, while stripping them out for other countries and industries.
American officials also have concerns over Mexican restrictions on imports of genetically modified corn and other products, as well as labor rights violations in Mexico.
In a call with reporters on Wednesday, a senior U.S. administration official said the United States planned to reaffirm its support of strong labor rights protections in the meetings. The U.S. has filed two cases using a new rapid response mechanism in the trade deal, one pertaining to a General Motors facility in Silao, Mexico, and another against Tridonex, an auto parts manufacturer in Matamoros. The rapid response mechanism allows for goods to be stopped at the U.S. border if labor complaints aren’t resolved.