Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

AMLO and Biden: Agents of Immigration Chaos

U.S.-Mexico security relations will only improve when AMLO and Biden both leave office.

President Lopez Obrador Welcomes President Biden
U.S. President Joe Biden and President of Mexico Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador shake hands during a welcome ceremony as part of the '2023 North American Leaders' Summit at Palacio Nacional on January 09, 2023 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

During recent congressional hearings about drug trafficking across our southern border, a frustrated Senator John Kennedy (R-LA) threw out some harsh comments about Mexico in decrying the lack of bilateral law enforcement cooperation. Kennedy should have omitted the obiter dicta, which served only to rile up our southern neighbor’s touchy President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (often called AMLO).  

Ideological and thin-skinned, AMLO fired back at the junior senator from Louisiana, declaring him persona non grata and urging all Mexicans residing in the United States to “never vote” for Kennedy.  The rhetorical fireworks obfuscated the main point, of course, which is that Lopez Obrador defiantly refuses to engage in any consequential bilateral security cooperation, and the White House’s open-border migration policies have made a bad situation dramatically worse. 


AMLO’s reaction to Kennedy was entirely predictable from a Mexican president who has proclaimed 2023 to be the year of Francisco “Pancho” Villa. Even for many Mexicans, AMLO’s desire to celebrate Villa has given pause. Despite the machista revolutionary’s dubious Robin Hood record, President Lopez Obrador is honoring Villa as the year’s “Hero of the Mexican Revolution,” shedding light both on the president’s unenlightened nationalism and his unwillingness to seek meaningful security cooperation with the gringos

Still, over fifty members of the Mexican Congress symbolically refused to go along in honoring the bloodthirsty Villa. As one Mexican wag tweeted in response to AMLO: “[Villa] was a murdering rapist, a real drug trafficker at the time of the Revolution. [No surprise] they chose him as the character of 2023.”

Given the nature of the irascible Mexican president, it was entirely predictable that the Biden administration would find it hard to work with him. While the border-focused Trump White House had successfully used tariff leverage to push AMLO, President Biden was unwilling to continue that kind of hard-nosed, but consequential, diplomacy.  

Instead, the Biden administration tried to engage AMLO through a so-called “U.S.-Mexico Bicentennial Framework,” which has turned out to be a series of empty diplomatic meetings. In the face of well-known security vulnerabilities on our southern frontier, Biden national security officials, led by the Eurocentric Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, not only discarded Trump’s strong-border strategy, but they also underestimated the growing power of Mexican cartels to export their criminal activity northward.

In this fragile bilateral security environment, President Biden caved to his party’s open-border extremists. The timing could not have been worse for Mexico. Repudiating Trump, the Biden administration internationally trumpeted a new “welcoming” approach on the southern frontier, irresponsibly drawing millions of foreign nationals to the U.S. border. This policy offered Mexican cartels a criminal bonanza of clandestine migrants to commercialize.   


As Biden’s initiative played out over months, President Lopez Obrador, for once, issued no protest, apparently as oblivious as his American counterpart to the looming unintended consequences. Blinded by his own open-border ideology, the stubborn AMLO seems never to have analyzed the impact of Washington’s unilateral migrant policies on Mexico’s national sovereignty. Much more subtle than previous Yanqui strong-arm tactics, President Biden was nevertheless blithely unleashing powerful outside forces that would trample Mexico. 

When it comes to illegal border crossings, AMLO’s security approach, if it exists at all, is centered on trying to protect unlawful migrants and making sure Mexican government officials do not abuse them. Like most elites in Latin America, AMLO is an ardent partisan for the internationalist vision of open frontiers that accommodate the “irregular” movement of people, best represented by the 2018 U.N. Global Compacts on migration and refugees. Since about 10 million Mexicans currently live in the United States, many argue that AMLO is only representing the traditional preference of his countrymen for a “loose” northern border.  

It is true this has been a long-standing attitude, but many Mexicans, particularly those living in the lawless frontier regions or in turbulent migration corridors, now challenge this perspective as being dangerous both for migrants and the communities they disrupt. While AMLO’s critics are typically reluctant to criticize non-Mexican migrants, the political opposition in Mexico is nevertheless condemning the chaos that Lopez Obrador’s open-border policies are causing across their country. 

As one astute Mexican journalist, Ana Maria Salazar, recently wrote on the demise of Title 42: “It is a problem of bad governments and lack of leadership. The humanitarian crisis that begins this week on the border between the United States and Mexico seems to have no father or mother. Neither the U.S. government nor the Mexican government, much less the Central American, Haitian, Venezuelan and Cuban governments, recognize their responsibilities in the migration crisis.”

Well-intentioned “welcoming” policies from Lopez Obrador in Mexico City or Biden in Washington are as ineffectual as international agreements in actually protecting migrants from criminal cartels. Stories of criminal exploitation of migrants in Mexico are daily occurrences, as cartel profits hit billions. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has tallied at least 3,130 migrants dead or missing in Latin America and the Caribbean in the past two years, many on a dangerous journey into Mexico and up to the United States.    

In 2022, as the migratory chaos spread in the region, AMLO undertook his own high-profile tour of Central America where he announced: “We have synchronized ourselves to the security policy of the United States,” which doubtless left officials in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Belize wondering what that actually meant. Uncharacteristically in step with Washington, AMLO communicated that Mexico endorsed Biden’s approach that confronting unauthorized migration is first about protecting vulnerable migrants, and only secondly about defending national borders. The reality is that this strategy does neither.

Appropriately, AMLO ended that same trip in Havana, where he praised his good friend and dictator, Cuban President Diaz-Canel, while asserting a “humanist vision” of illegal migration. By that, AMLO meant that clandestine migrants should come, damn the dangers they will encounter or the consequences to Mexico. President Lopez Obrador was taking his lines right from DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.  

The Mexican president rejects any carping at his actions. Criticism from Mexico’s left-leaning intellectuals long ago proved too much for his thin skin, sparking AMLO’s bitter break with them. Mexico’s establishment intellectuals have charged him with populistic “lopezobradorismo.” President Lopez Obrador has denounced them, in a move of impressive ideological jujitsu, as the “spokespeople for conservatives.” Yes, under AMLO, things south of the border can become confused. 

For a leader who trumpets his “non-interventionism” and who bristles when foreigners dare impede on Mexico’s sovereignty, AMLO rarely hesitates to instruct his giant northern neighbor on how it should run its business. Currently, AMLO is on record calling for the United States 1) to issue vastly more visas, both for Mexicans and others in the hemisphere; 2) significantly to expand U.S. foreign assistance and investment into Central America; 3) to lift economic sanctions and carry out a diplomatic rapprochement with the repressive regimes in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, as the way to remove the need for emigration from those countries. In AMLO’s wisdom, it is “neoliberalism” that is forcing migrants out of these countries, not dysfunctional Marxist dictatorships.

In addition, AMLO has gone out of his way to rebuke Secretary of State Blinken for saying that cartels control parts of Mexico, while also condemning the State Department’s human rights report on Mexico as “garbage.” Yet, despite such outspoken rejection of U.S. “meddling,” President Lopez Obrador still has not denounced Washington’s disastrous immigration strategy that has rocked his country.   

Academic Latin America watchers caution that Washington’s policy needs to carefully accommodate Mexican resentimientos caused by past U.S. aggressions. While there is doubtless some truth to this, as history and ideology clearly animate AMLO, Americans and Mexicans alike know the past should not hinder implementing common-sense, effective bilateral security policies. With the private sector moving $1.8 billion in commerce daily between the two countries, certainly our political leadership on both sides of the border can do much better.

Pancho Villa has been gone a century, assassinated in 1923. President Lopez Obrador’s six-year term ends in December 2024 and under the Mexican constitution he is ineligible to serve again. It is long past time for new national leadership north and south of the Rio Bravo.