Bedlam At The Border: How The Frontier Has Become A Key Issue In Mexico-U.S Relations

Rawlings Mitema Onserio
U.S. President Joe Biden and Mexico president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at the National Palace in Mexico City on 9th January 2023.
Source: (Andrew Harnik / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

On January 9th 2023, US President Joe Biden and his Mexico counterpart, Andres Manuel López Obrador met for the North American leaders summit in Mexico City, later joined by Canadian premier Justin Trudeau. The meeting marked the first time that a US leader has visited Mexico in nearly a decade, which is quite surprising, considering how crucial the Mexico border is, and has always been to US immigration policy. One of the hallmarks of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign was the promise to build a structure along the US-Mexico border that would curtail the growing number of illegal crossings into the US and that he would make Mexico pay for it, however, then Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto insisted that Mexico would not cover the cost of the wall. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that whenever heads of state from the two countries convene, the issue of their nearly 3,100km shared border is bound to come up.

In 2023, the issue of the border has yet again reared its ugly head, and there seems to be no immediate solution. The issue of migration persists; every year, hundreds of thousands of immigrants from South American countries seek entry into the U.S through the Mexican border, in search of greener pastures. With the topic of migration being such a contentious issue in the United States, especially around the election period, U.S- Mexico ties are crucial to the process of ensuring that the process is safe and controlled. Another problem that has recently surfaced is that of fentanyl. Fentanyl abuse has been rampant in the United States over the past few years, exacerbated by the ready availability of the drug due to its synthetic nature, with the U.S- Mexico border being a major entry point. A deeper look at these two issues is paramount to understanding the position in which Mexico has found itself in early 2023, and what the implications might be for its relations with the U.S.


Scenes at the migrant centre which caught fire in Ciudad Juarez. Source: AP.

On March 27 2023, a fire broke out at an immigration detention center in Ciudad Juarez, killing nearly 40 immigrants. This tragic incident shone a spotlight on the challenges faced by the scores of immigrants who make the trek to the U.S border in search of asylum, a journey that very often turns deadly. Mexican President Lopez Obrador blamed the fire on immigrants who were supposedly protesting their deportation. The immigrant situation at the border grows more precarious by the day and will only be exacerbated with the expiration of Title 42 on May 11.Title 42 is a regulation implemented during the pandemic that authorized the United States to expel asylum seekers without a hearing if they are considered to have entered the country unlawfully. In the wake of the end of Title 42, a huge influx of immigrants is anticipated and Mexico is just as invested in the situation.

During January 2023, an agreement was reached between the U.S and Mexico which stated that Mexico would accept up to 30,000 immigrants per month who were denied asylum in the U.S, specifically from Venezuela, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Cuba. However, Mexico’s increased importance to U.S immigration policy does not bode well for the border towns which are already struggling with the surging numbers of immigrants.


A display of the fentanyl and methamphetamine seized by Customs and Border Protection officers at a port of entry. Source: Mamta Popat, Associated Press

The U.S is seeking Mexico’s cooperation at the border with the issue of fentanyl; a synthetic opioid drug which is sometimes produced illegally and sold on the black market, where it has been associated with a growing number of overdose deaths due to its high potency. According to a report by the Wilson Center, while Chinese companies are responsible for the majority of fentanyl production, Mexico is becoming a major transit and production point for the drug.

Bilateral cooperation seems to be the logical solution yet the two governments have differing views. President Lopez Obrador framed fentanyl as an American problem and blamed it on the lack of hugs. The U.S, on the other hand, believes that the Mexican cartels are heavily involved in the product’s circulation and Republicans have even suggested military intervention as a means to curb the supply of fentanyl from the south of the border. This is an issue that will only persist unless the two governments are able to agree on a joint solution, which is easier said than done.

President Biden has certainly taken a warmer approach to Mexico than his predecessor Donald Trump, pressure from the GOP on the aforementioned issues of immigration and fentanyl supply may alter his approach. Indeed, he delayed the end of Title 42 for nearly two months, as he was being criticised by both Democrats and Republicans. President Lopez Obrador seems to prefer focusing on the issues in Mexico, particularly security, especially with the 2024 presidential elections coming up. However, the importance of the U.S as a strategic partner means that he might compromise on some issues in order to appease his northern neighbours. The arrest of Ovidio Guzman, the son of Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman and a high-ranking member of the Sinaloa cartel, was seen as a token of good faith to the U.S, as the Sinaloa cartel is believed to be heavily involved in the fentanyl drug trade.

With both countries slated to hold presidential elections in 2024, cooperation is at a crucial point and issues pertaining to the border will be a key factor.

  • How will President Biden’s administration handle the expected influx after the end of Title 42?
  • How does President Lopez Obrador plan to conduct relations with the U.S. post-Trump moving forward?
  • How do the two countries plan to streamline the immigration process moving forward?

Suggested readings

Border asylum limits ending, but not Biden’s migrant woes AP News 2 April 2022

Mexican president blames US fentanyl crisis on “lack of hugs” among families The Guardian 17 March 2023

Biden’s charm offensive in Mexico is all about the border Time 10 January 2023

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Bedlam At The Border: How…

by Rawlings Mitema Onserio time to read: 4 min