MEXICO CITY — President Biden on Tuesday defended his handling of the border and thanked his Mexican counterpart for a willingness to accept asylum seekers rejected by the United States during a period of what he called “the greatest migration in human history” across the region.
In remarks at the end of a two-day summit with the leaders of Mexico and Canada, Mr. Biden dismissed criticism from Republicans, Democrats and humanitarian groups, calling them the “extremes” and saying he was pursuing a middle ground in his approach to immigration.
“I want to thank the president of Mexico for agreeing to take up to 3,000 people back,” Mr. Biden said, apparently referring to the announcement last week that Mexico would accept 30,000 migrants each month from Venezuela, Haiti, Nicaragua and Cuba who attempt to cross into the United States illegally.
That increased enforcement at the border has been condemned by Democrats and human rights groups as an inhumane denial of asylum rights. But Mr. Biden said on Tuesday that the creation of new legal immigration programs for people from those countries counterbalanced that effort.
“There can no longer be any question, none, in today’s interconnected world. We cannot wall ourselves off from shared problems,” Mr. Biden said, adding, “We’re trying to make it easier for people to get here.”
The president’s comments followed several hours of closed-door discussions with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada that also focused on the climate crisis, drug trafficking, economic prosperity and trade.
All three men said the summit underscored the cooperation among their governments and played down longstanding disagreements and tensions, especially over the economic competition in energy and emerging technologies like electric vehicles.
“We’re true partners, the three of us,” Mr. Biden said at a news conference after the meetings.
But if the summit was intended to show a shared commitment to addressing immigration, it also showed the intractability of the issue. Questions about how to confront the waves of people fleeing their homelands across Central and South America dominated much of the private discussion and the public statement to the news media, and a fact sheet distributed by the White House listing “key deliverables” from the summit did not include any new major migration initiatives.
Aides to Mr. Biden said the broader challenge of how to secure the border was his top priority at the summit. In a one-on-one meeting on Monday night, Mr. Biden and Mr. López Obrador “reaffirmed their commitment to implement innovative approaches to address irregular migration,” according to a White House summary of the meeting.
At the news conference after the summit, Mr. López Obrador delivered a lengthy history of the changes in migration patterns over the past several decades and emphasized his belief that the best way to prevent people from leaving their homes was to invest in making their countries prosperous and safe.
He praised Mr. Biden for what he said was a recognition of that reality while criticizing past American presidents for focusing too heavily on trying to keep migrants out of the country.
“You are the first president of the United States in a very long time that has not built not even one meter of wall,” Mr. López Obrador said. “And that — we thank you for that, sir.”
The Mexican president also took a veiled swipe at Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, who bused a group of migrants to Washington last month and dropped them off in frigid weather in front of the Naval Observatory, the home for Vice President Kamala Harris.
“This is politicking. This is completely inhuman,” Mr. López Obrador said, referring to “one of the governors” in a “neighboring country” in his remarks. “And this should not be done.”
Mr. López Obrador hosted Mr. Biden and Mr. Trudeau for the closed-door discussions at the National Palace in Mexico City, the seat of government and the residence for the Mexican president.
On climate change, White House officials said the three leaders had agreed to some new targets, including a pledge to “reduce methane emissions from the solid waste and wastewater sector by at least 15 percent by 2030 from 2020 levels.” They will work to develop a plan to cut down on food waste, and a separate plan for coordinating electric vehicle charging stations along their borders, White House officials said.
Mr. Trudeau emphasized economic cooperation on the continent, saying the three leaders were “all dedicated to driving economic growth that supports the middle class and those working hard to join it.”
Other issues on Tuesday’s agenda included renewed efforts to combat trafficking of drugs and weapons in North America. Biden administration officials have been frustrated in the past two years with what they say is a lack of Mexican cooperation in drug investigations.
The White House fact sheet said the leaders had agreed to strengthen the North American Drug Dialogue to increase information sharing and to enhance collaboration among all three nations on nuclear security and safety.
Earlier Tuesday, Mr. Biden and Mr. Trudeau discussed the close relationship between their countries as they continued to deal with what Mr. Trudeau called “very real challenges,” such as support for democracy around the world and climate change.
“When we work together, we can achieve great things,” Mr. Biden told Mr. Trudeau, adding that there is “unlimited economic potential” when the two countries collaborate. “I’m lucky,” he added, “I got Canada to the north and Mexico to the south.”
The relationship between Canada and Mexico has a different dynamic from their relationships with the United States, with which they each share a border.
Canada has increased its investments in Mexico in recent years, even as it has joined the United States in protesting Mexico’s energy policies as a violation of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the trade deal that went into effect in July 2020. But experts say that Canada enjoys little leverage over Mexico under Mr. López Obrador’s administration.
“We just don’t have anything we can seriously offer them,” said Robert Bothwell, an expert on Canada’s diplomatic history at the University of Toronto. Mr. López Obrador “buys tolerance from the United States by fiddling around with the border in a manner that’s convenient to the Biden administration or to Trump. And in return, he expects the United States to cut him some slack in other areas.”
Unlike some of his predecessors, especially former President Vicente Fox, Mr. López Obrador has shown little interest in building ties with Canada, Mr. Bothwell said. The Mexican president’s views are in sharp contrast with Mr. Trudeau’s longstanding emphasis on themes like diversity, equality and feminism, he said.
“These themes will absolutely cut no ice” with Mr. López Obrador, Mr. Bothwell said.
The three leaders met as a trade agreement that has knit the economies of Canada, the United States and Mexico more closely together will face a significant test this week, as a panel of experts is expected to rule that the United States has violated the agreement’s rules related to car manufacturing.
The pending decision on one of several prominent North American trade spats comes as the leaders reaffirmed their commitment to deepening trade between their economies and upholding the terms of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
All three countries are being criticized by their trading partners for violating various aspects of that pact, which revised and updated the older North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. The United States and Canada continue to clash over Canada’s system for managing its dairy industry, while Mexico has garnered criticism for its energy policies and plan to ban imports of genetically modified corn, which would hurt American producers.
Ana Swanson contributed reporting from Washington, Steve Fisher from Mexico City and Norimitsu Onishi from Montreal.