WASHINGTON — President Biden will speak by video conference on Monday with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, one of the unexpected, yet pivotal, drivers of Trump-era policies to seal the United States to migrants that Mr. Biden is trying to unwind.
Mr. Biden is expected to discuss the coronavirus pandemic, cracking down on drug trafficking and collaborating on economic opportunities with one of Washington’s largest trading partners, according to a senior administration official. The discussion, coming just days after Mr. Biden sought to repair relations in a virtual meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, will also center on efforts to control migration as the Biden administration contends with rising numbers of unaccompanied children at the southwestern border.
Mr. López Obrador is a critical partner as Mr. Biden seeks to reverse former President Donald J. Trump’s border policies and make an immigration overhaul a centerpiece of his agenda. In Mr. López Obrador, however, the new president is not dealing with yet another relieved world leader eager to rebuild relations and move on from his abrasive predecessor.
The Mexican president won the admiration of Mr. Trump for cooperating on his hard-line immigration agenda, a reversal of a campaign promise to protect migrants made in part to avoid tariffs Mr. Trump threatened to impose. Mr. López Obrador came to appreciate the Trump administration for its eventual hands-off approach to Mexican domestic policy issues, even praising Mr. Trump during a call with Mr. Biden, then the president-elect, in December.
Mr. López Obrador was also one of the last global leaders to congratulate Mr. Biden on his election victory, and recently adopted a measure to restrict cooperation with American narcotics agents in a sharp rebuke after the United States arrested a former Mexican official on drug trafficking charges.
Mr. Biden will not demand specific actions because Mexico is a sovereign nation, according to the senior official who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity to discuss the meeting. It is unclear how Mr. Biden will respond to Mr. López Obrador’s recent call to create a new guest worker program for Mexicans and Central Americans in the United States. Mr. Biden would need the help of Congress to expand visas for such temporary employees.
The two leaders, who previously talked about ways to stem migration in a call on Jan. 22, just days after Mr. Biden took office, are expected to discuss addressing the root causes of persecution and poverty that force Central American families to flee to the United States. Mr. Biden said during his campaign that he would focus on expanding opportunities to apply for refugee status in Central America and bolster foreign aid to the region. Immigration advocates have criticized Mr. Biden in recent days for reopening border facilities used during the Trump administration to hold migrant children during the weeks or months it takes to place them with their relatives in the United States.
“We will need Mexico’s cooperation. Biden keeps saying we need a regional solution, although he hasn’t talked much about Mexico,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, the director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “There’s a lot about working on root causes and investing in Central America, but there’s no mention of Mexico.”
After Mr. Trump threatened potentially crippling tariffs against the American ally in 2019, Mexico agreed to deploy security forces to its southern border with Guatemala to deter migrants fleeing poverty and persecution.
As a part of backing off the tariffs, the Trump administration also expanded a program across the U.S.-Mexico border that forced migrants to wait in Mexico while their immigration cases were processed. The Biden administration has now begun reprocessing many of those migrants, including those exposed to kidnappings and cartel violence, who have been stuck in limbo during a pandemic that forced delays in their cases. The administration is relying on international organizations to provide testing to the migrants in Mexico before they are reprocessed in the United States.
Mr. Biden is also seeking Mexico’s help to deter new arrivals at the border, a goal that is already facing challenges. His administration has kept in place a Trump-era policy that empowers border officers to rapidly expel migrants to Mexico, a move administration officials purport to be necessary to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in detention facilities and border communities.
But a recent change in Mexican law that prohibits the detention of small children in the state of Tamaulipas has forced U.S. Customs and Border Protection to return to the practice of releasing migrant families at bus stations in certain areas of neighboring South Texas, a pivot that has prompted concern among leaders in the border agency. Most migrant families continue to be expelled to Mexico or Central America.
Biden administration officials have had continuing discussions with Mexico on a resolution to the breakdown, according to the senior official, who would not say whether Mr. Biden planned to bring up the recent change.