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Migration high on priority list during Biden's first meeting with Mexico's president

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Migration, the COVID pandemic and trade are all topics that were expected to be discussed during President Biden's first bilateral meeting with his Mexican counterpart President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Antonio Garza, the former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, joins CBSN's Elaine Quijano to discuss a new immigrant work policy proposed by the Mexican president and other issues facing the two leaders.

Video Transcript

ELAINE QUIJANO: President Biden held his first bilateral meeting Monday with his counterpart in Mexico, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. The two presidents met virtually and discussed a variety of topics, including economic and security cooperation, the pandemic, and immigration. President Lopez Obrador proposed a new immigrant labor program for President Biden. And the idea of the US loaning Mexico doses of the coronavirus vaccine was also discussed.

For more, I'm joined by Antonio Garza. He's a former US ambassador to Mexico and a council to White and Case Law Firm. Mr. Ambassador, welcome. Thanks very much for joining us.

ANTONIO GARZA: You bet, Elaine. Good to be with you.

ELAINE QUIJANO: So before we dive into some of the specific issues, given that we have a new administration in the White House, what is the current state of US-Mexico relations?

ANTONIO GARZA: Well, I think the current state is in transition. And that's not unusual, given the fact that you have a new administration in the United States. You know, during the last four years, the relationship has been somewhat one dimensional, focused on immigration. I think with the Biden administration, you're going to see an attempt to be far more institutional, broad. And the full range of trade, immigration, and security issues are going to be on the table and discussed.

This may come as a bit of an affront to President Lopez Obrador [INAUDIBLE] a bit more of a nationalistic streak and would like, really, for the United States to stay pretty much clear of domestic issues. But I think the state of the relationship is good. In the introductory comments to that, you saw all the warm, all the good feeling, all the good expressions. You also saw something that I think was very important and interesting.

You saw a great deal of preparation leading up to this meeting. Secretary Blinken had met with his counterpart. I know at the undersecretary level, there have been meetings during this transition. So you're seeing a more institutional approach to the relationship, which I think, ultimately, will be good both for the United States and Mexico.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Oh, you mentioned migration. Of course, that is continuing to be a big issue facing both countries. President Lopez Obrador suggested a Bracero-style immigrant labor program between the US and Mexico. First, can you explain how that system would work and how it could benefit both sides?

ANTONIO GARZA: Well, you know, Elaine, the Bracero program is one that dates back to, I think, the early 1940s, when there was a labor shortage in the United States given the exigencies of World War II. And the program ran for about 20 years, largely focused on labor. It was very much a broad guest-worker-type program. Some real challenges with it in terms of the way labor was treated in many parts of the United States. And it ultimately fell out of favor and out of usage in the early 1960s.

What President Lopez Obrador is proposing is something along those lines. And I think it's unlikely, I think, that it would get much traction in the United States, for many reasons. One, it would take congressional action. This is not something that can be done simply through the executive, the expansion of the guest worker and the visas associated with that. And I think it would take a lot of care around the protection of labor and those individuals in the United States.

On a conceptual level, it perhaps has some appeal. Politically, I'm not sure it would go too, too far. But I think it's important that all the immigration issues are on the table and are willing to be discussed, not simply in the context of enforcement and securing the border, but in the flows and the orderly and safe, secure movement of people to and from the United States and Mexico.

ELAINE QUIJANO: So do you think that President Biden should consider this program as a viable option?

ANTONIO GARZA: Well, I think what President Biden has signaled that he's willing to consider in addition to the executive orders that have been signed as relate to the DACA program, the children in the United States, and some of the other areas that they have moved away from the prior administration's position on immigration, they've also made very clear that they'd like to see some sort of comprehensive immigration reform.

And certainly, guest worker programs can be a part of that, the expansion of the visas around certain areas where labor is in short supply. But I think perhaps this administration would like to see that in the context of broader immigration reform and not simply a program that is all about one country, Mexico, and labor.

ELAINE QUIJANO: And on that point, the two leaders also discussed the root causes behind Central American migration and what's forcing thousands to flee for the US. So how could the US and Mexico, you think, address these issues?

ANTONIO GARZA: Well, you know, I think, in that respect, you saw in the last administration, funds that were designated for Central America, for that Northern Triangle, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, everything from economic development, rule of law, security-type initiatives in the area, that are really a big part of what is forcing people to leave those countries. And I think, in that respect, Mexico can be both a partner in terms of working with those countries and also, quite frankly, providing some enforcement along their southern border.

So I think it's a combination of both addressing root causes, having some enforcement mechanisms in place so that the movement of peoples can be safer, more orderly, and secure. But I think you have to take a step back. And I like the fact that these two administrations are meeting early and that their cabinet met last week. Secretary Blinken was meeting with his counterpart and also met with the commerce secretary in Mexico, so they can take a broader more holistic look at North America in the context of, let's say, our trade agreement with Canada as well, and say, what is the best approach, not only to labor, but investment, rule of law? And how can we move towards being the most competitive economic platform in the world?

ELAINE QUIJANO: Well, before Monday's meeting, it was reported that President Lopez Obrador was going to ask President Biden for a vaccine loan. Now, White House press Secretary Jen Psaki said that would not happen. But President Biden said they were going to talk about it. So could this be an opportunity to strengthen ties between the two countries?

ANTONIO GARZA: Well, I think, what you're seeing, really, and not just in the context of the United States and Mexico, but around the world, you're seeing both China, Russia, and others moving towards some variation of vaccine diplomacy. So I think, in terms of discussions and how the vaccines might be more available to Mexico, is a discussion that needs to be had. Because it's not only about COVID-- and certainly that's primarily the health and safety of people in Mexico.

But when you look at the integration of our manufacturing platforms and the US investments in Mexico, the quicker Mexico can move towards healthy, and we can be a part of that, the more economically competitive we can be as North America. So I do think it should be a discussion. But clearly, I think this administration has made, you know, fairly clear that those vaccines are going to be targeted first for people in the United States. And to the extent that they can work with our neighbors, I think, certainly, we'd like to see that.

ELAINE QUIJANO: All right, former US ambassador to Mexico Antonio Garza. Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much for your time.

ANTONIO GARZA: Thank you, Elaine.