By Sharay Angulo and Humeyra Pamuk
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday urged Central Americans without travel papers not undertake risky journeys to the United States, as the Biden administration grapples with fast-rising irregular immigration across the southern border.
Speaking at an online meeting with officials in El Paso and Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez at the start of a “virtual visit” that included conversations with Mexican ministers, Blinken said the United States was strictly enforcing border laws.
“The border is closed to irregular migration,” Blinken said.
In recent weeks, numbers of apprehensions at the border have jumped sharply, as Central Americans flee the worst humanitarian crisis in a generation triggered by devastating hurricanes and the coronavirus pandemic. The number of people going hungry in Central America has nearly quadrupled in the last two years.
President Joe Biden’s administration has been undoing Trump-era immigration policies that closed off routes to asylum in the United States, while trying to dissuade new arrivals until the system for legal migration is overhauled.
“President Biden is committed to reforming our immigration system and ensuring safe, orderly and humane processing at our border. Those things will take time,” Blinken said.
The online meetings also touched on trade, climate change and security, in a sign of Biden’s broader agenda with Mexico after his predecessor’s singular focus on migration.
Before the meetings, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador told the United States not to meddle in domestic energy policy, reflecting concerns that the new U.S. government will be more proactive in defending investor interests as Mexico moves to change rules in favor of state power and oil companies.
“We do not meddle in the affairs of the United States or any other nation,” Lopez Obrador told a regular news conference. “Because we don’t want anybody deciding about Mexican matters.”
Lopez Obrador, an energy nationalist who has sought to renegotiate electricity and pipeline contracts with U.S. and Canadian companies, faced little pressure from former President Donald Trump over his policies.
Mexico relies heavily on fuel imported from the United States. A new bill in Congress that aims to reshape Mexico’s electricity industry to favor state utility CFE has caused alarm among lobbies for private investment.
Business groups have pushed for Lopez Obrador’s energy shake-up to be a more prominent part of the bilateral conversation, one senior industry official said.
Lopez Obrador appeared to suggest that the United States had already raised the issue with his government.
“They say we should act in a certain way, that’s fine, freedom of expression must be guaranteed,” he said.
In seeking to use more domestic fuel, Lopez Obrador has also limited the growth of foreign renewable energy operators, which critics say affects Mexico’s obligations on climate emissions, a policy priority for Biden.
Economy Minister Tatiana Clouthier said during her meeting with Blinken that Lopez Obrador saw the new USMCA North American trade deal as a major tool for the post-coronavirus recovery and was willing to work with Biden on making supply chains more resilient to shocks like the pandemic.