Briefing with Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian A. Nichols on the North American Leaders’ Summit and Bilateral Meetings with Canada and Mexico
MR ICE: Thank you, Operator, and good morning. I’d like to take this opportunity to welcome everyone and to thank you for joining us for this press briefing.
Today we’re very pleased to be joined by Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs Assistant Secretary Brian Nichols, who is going to discuss the North America Leaders’ Summit and the bilateral meeting that took place with Canada and Mexico. This briefing is on the record today, but I would remind folks that the contents are embargoed until the end of our call.
We’re going to start, the assistant secretary is going to give some brief remarks, and then we’ll take your questions. With that, Assistant Secretary Nichols, thank you so much for joining us today. I’ll go ahead and turn it over to you for some opening remarks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NICHOLS: Thank you so much, and thank you to all our guests for joining. As you know, this was quite a big week for the United States, Mexico, and Canada. President Biden welcomed Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada and President López Obrador of Mexico to the White House for trilateral and bilateral talks to advance North American cooperation.
As two of our closest partners, we seek to deepen and expand our security cooperation and economic partnership with Canada and Mexico. The North American Leaders’ Summit and the President’s bilateral meetings with the Prime Minister and the President advanced our shared priorities for the region.
During the summit, the United States, Mexico, and Canada reaffirmed their strong ties and integration while also charting a new path for collaboration on ending the COVID-19 pandemic and advancing health security, competitiveness, and equitable growth, to include combatting climate change and a regional vision for migration.
The White House released a fact sheet detailing an extensive list of deliverables for the 2021 North American Leaders’ Summit and I want to highlight a few key items on there. First, regarding our joint efforts to end the COVID-19 pandemic and advance global health, the United States, Mexico, and Canada pledged to work together to improve vaccine distribution in Latin America and the Caribbean.
In March 2021, the United States loaned 4 million doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine to Canada and Mexico – a loan which both countries have pledged to pay forward to our neighbors in the region to address yet unmet needs. The three leaders also committed to update the North American Plan for Animal and Pandemic Influenza, NAPAPI, and shore up our medical supply chain – steps that will help our region and the world respond to future global health challenges.
Second: While we have long partnered with Canada and Mexico to foster competitiveness, at the North American Leaders’ Summit we placed a particular emphasis on strengthening supply chains, ensuring good regulatory practices, and stimulating innovation.
We agreed to protect labor rights, support small and medium enterprises, promotes women’s entrepreneurship, and create the conditions for equitable growth. The United States, Mexico, and Canada share a commitment to diversity and inclusion.
And third, as a destination for countries for vulnerable migrants from our region and from around the world, Mexico, the United States and Canada agreed to deepen our cooperation and leadership to address irregular migration, development, and security. These commitments build on our bilateral work with Mexico and Canada to stem the flow of irregular migration, to strengthen asylum systems, and to combat human traffic.
Turning briefly to the bilateral meetings, President Biden had productive meetings with President López Obrador and Prime Minister Trudeau. Given our close ties with both countries, our shared values, and our longstanding relationships, the leaders addressed a wide array of topics and opened the doors for even closer collaboration in the future.
President Biden and Prime Minister Trudeau spoke about issues of importance to our two governments, but also about issues that deeply impact the people of our countries. They spoke about the rise in drug use and overdoses in both of our countries, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and promoting gender equality. Beyond the needs and interests of our own people, the two leaders also discussed ways to promote security and prosperity and to support vulnerable populations around the world from the Indo-Pacific to the Arctic, in Haiti, and in Afghanistan, the United States and Canada share work, side by side. At this bilateral meeting, President Biden and Prime Minister Trudeau reiterated our strong partnership.
The President’s meeting with Mexican President López Obrador was equally productive, building on the progress from the high-level economic dialogue and the high-level security dialogues earlier this year. And we worked – as we worked to institutionalize and formalize our cooperation with Mexico, the two leaders committed to developing and strengthening several working groups focused on our shared security interests, to deepen our cooperation on development challenges throughout the region, especially as they relate to addressing the root causes of irregular migration.
President Biden, President López Obrador, and Prime Minister Trudeau covered many more topics in their meetings, and there are countless opportunities for us to follow up as a result of these conversations.
With that, I’ll stop and take some of your questions.
MR ICE: Thank you. Operator, would you please give the instructions for getting into our question queue?
OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press 1 then 0 on your touchtone phone. You may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing 1-0 again. If you are using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, if you have a question, please press 1 then 0 at this time.
MR ICE: Okay, thank you. Let’s go to the line of Will Mauldin.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for having this, and appreciate the chance to speak with you, Assistant Secretary Nichols. You mentioned economic integration, and I just wanted to ask, like, how important is that in terms of our economic ties? Thinking of USMCA or what Canada calls CUSMA, the ink is barely dry; it’s an agreement that the Trump administration negotiated, but pretty much all Democrats also approved of in the final compromise version, sort of re-upping the commitment to treat each others’ auto industries with the same standards. And now the Canadians are concerned that Biden administration-supported legislation coming through would treat – would give a tax subsidy, a tax credit to American-made electric vehicles and not to Canadian counterparts.
So I guess my question is: Do you tell your counterparts in Canada that the U.S. does stand by its economic commitments, its trade commitments, treaties, executive legislative agreements, or that that kind of thing is up for renegotiation? Not to ask it in too pointed of a manner, but we’re just curious in this new world of trade, in middle-class foreign policy, is this something that the U.S. is serious about, or is this the kind of thing that’s going to have to be kind of redone? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NICHOLS: So that’s a big question. I’ll just state there was a very comprehensive discussion of supply chains, integration, cooperation. I should note that the – all the meetings, all the elements of the summit yesterday ran long. The conversations were very dynamic. Things were supposed to finish around 6:30; they actually finished after 9 p.m. at night. So we were able to cover a huge range of issues. All the leaders are deeply committed to maintaining and strengthening the economic integration and the supply chains that we have throughout North America.
The President and the Prime Minister did discuss the concerns that Canada has, and we look forward to working with them across a full range of issues. Obviously, we have some difference of opinion on these issues, but we have a great relationship, as President Trudeau said yesterday, and we’re going to work through all of the issues that we have, and we’re going to use the treaty and trade frameworks that we have to do so.
MR ICE: Let’s go to the line of Robert Fife.
QUESTION: Good day. I have two questions. One is: The Canadian Government believes that the tax incentives would be a violation of the new trade agreement. I’d like to get your thoughts on that. And also, was Line 5 raised, and what was the – so what was the American position?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NICHOLS: So the – we have a different view of the USMCA commitment on the EVs, but we’re certainly going to keep talking about that. And on – the President and the Prime Minister noted the Line 5 litigation as ongoing and we’re going to leave that in its legal challenge – legal channel and continue to work to strengthen our cooperation.
MR ICE: Let’s go to the line of Jorge Agobian at VOA.
QUESTION: Good morning. Thank you for doing this and taking my question. My question is: Was there a mention about Cuba and Nicaragua during the talks? Officials previewed that it would be a topic of discussion. And if so, what was the tone of the conversation with the Mexican President?
And I would like to take advantage of this opportunity to ask you about your reaction on the Nicaragua’s announcement to leave the Organization of American States. Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NICHOLS: So on the second part first, I’m going to limit my discussions to the North American Leaders’ Summit, but you can certainly work with our press team on other issues and we can talk at another time on those.
So the leaders discussed democracy in our hemisphere and its importance extensively, and what we can do to deliver greater progress and real actions to defend democracy in our hemisphere at some length. We are all committed to making sure that this is a hemisphere that respects democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. President Biden particularly noted his concerns about the issue of corruption and how that undermines democracy, and making sure that the benefits of economic growth reach all the peoples of our hemisphere.
The – President López Obrador shares those values and beliefs, though he also stated his view that the non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries, which is a longstanding tenet of Mexican foreign policy, is also quite important. But they all agreed that democracy should be the hallmark of our hemisphere. So I’ll leave it there.
MR ICE: So let’s next go to the line of Tonda MacCharles at the Toronto Star.
QUESTION: Hi there. I wonder if you could clarify some of the remarks you made about the American view of why this does or doesn’t violate the newly negotiated NAFTA. If you could just elaborate a little bit more on that, because the agreement itself says that the three countries agreed they won’t discriminate based on country of origin. The provision, the tax incentives clearly preference – give preference to American content.
So could you elaborate on what your position is vis-à-vis NAFTA? And does President Biden’s comments yesterday about he doesn’t know what form the legislation will take once it passes through all the votes of Congress, does that signal an opening by the President or the administration to maybe looking at incentives for North American-wide content as opposed to American-only content?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NICHOLS: Well, President Biden’s words stand on their own, so I won’t qualify them or expand upon them. I will note that the two leaders did have a long conversation one on one before the general meeting, and we know that they discussed a full range of issues in detail and laid out each other’s concerns and positions on a broad range of issues, including the one we’re on now. And we look forward to continuing our conversations with our North American partners to the north and south about how we can continue to deepen and strengthen our economic integration. So I’m just going to leave it there.
MR ICE: Okay, let’s go to the line of Joel Gehrke.
QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. I wondered, just on the – shifting to the region and thinking about both the pandemic and root causes of migration, I know that’s got a lot of attention this week. There was a lot of talk last year within the government, some anticipatory anxiety about the pandemic causing a lot of economic harm throughout the region and potentially sparking a really unprecedented wave of migration north as people try to escape difficult public health and economic situations.
More recently a lot of lawmakers on the Hill suggested that the recent surge in Haitian migrants at the border was related to that, that they were the most vulnerable people in the region and thus the first to sort of show those effects of the pandemic. What’s your degree of anxiety, for lack of a better word, that there might be a new powerful driver of migration over the next year? And how much are you thinking of that as you think strategically about how to address the root causes going forward?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NICHOLS: Thanks. That’s a great question and something that all three of our nations are very much focused on. You will recall that Secretary Blinken co-chaired a regional meeting on migration in Bogota in October, and both Canada and Mexico participated in that. Please take a look at the fact sheet that the White House has published. We’re continuing to work toward a regional migration framework that brings together the already very active threads that we are working on, on the migration issue. And things we’re trying to do is to provide timely access to international protection for asylum seekers, expanding regularization options and legal pathways for migrants who don’t have protection needs, ensuring the most vulnerable population, such as survivors of GBV or victims of trafficking, can access critical services and support.
We’re working on the root causes piece, and that was something talked about particularly with President López Obrador with a focus on southern Mexico and northern Central America. But throughout our hemisphere, taking steps to address the economic and social challenges that we are facing is crucial, and dealing with COVID-19 as a driver of migration and economic instability is very important. Our administration has already provided some 50 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines within our hemisphere. I talked about the pay forward vaccines that Canada and Mexico will be doing with regard to the AstraZeneca vaccines. So we are very much focused on that.
Within the Build Back Better World area, I’ll note that particular emphasis is going to strengthening pharmaceutical and vaccine production in the hemisphere, as well as just a broader strengthening of health care systems throughout our hemisphere. So we are quite cognizant of this longstanding challenge, and as we think about this issue, we’re going to be coordinating closely among our governments. So thanks for that.
MR ICE: I think we have time for one more question. Let’s go to Michael Board.
QUESTION: Thank you guys for doing this. I appreciate it. I wanted to ask again about the discussions between the U.S. and Mexico over irregular migration. Can you categorize? Can you sort of explain the tone of the discussions between the U.S. and Mexico when it came to addressing irregular migration? And also, was the return of the Migrant Protection Protocol brought up? Because that’s something that the U.S. and Mexico would have to work at together.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NICHOLS: So taking the second part first, the – that is subject to ongoing litigation. Obviously it’s something that DHS has the lead on, and I’m just going to leave that there. But the broader issues of sort of the tone around migration – it was very constructive, very positive tone. The shared values that we have – and I just went over them, so I’m not going to repeat some of the things that I said – but interesting that while from the U.S. perspective, U.S. public perspective, we are the – we have this unique focus in terms of migration and a destination for migrants and refugees.
But as I noted earlier, Mexico is the world’s third-largest destination for asylum seekers, and Canada is a nation that is – continues to seek migrants. Actually, the Prime Minister noted that half of the agricultural workers in Canada are foreign born, and migration and immigration make up important goals for Canada. Talked about cooperation with regard to Afghan resettlement; that’s something that Canada is working closely with the United States on.
Getting back to the root causes issue, Canada and the United States partner closely to support security, economic progress, and political reconciliation in Haiti. And so it was a very positive conversation. President López Obrador was very much focused on the integration of our – of his Sembrando Vidas program, which is sort of a jobs and climate program in southern Mexico, with some of our efforts to support similar goals in the Northern Triangle countries, and that’s an area of cooperation on root causes. So I think there’s a really positive dynamic in terms of our cooperation on these issues.
You may recall that earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor announced a supplemental increase of 6,000 H-2B visas for non-agricultural workers from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador for FY 2021. And for the first time there’s a temporary supplemental allocation for H-2B visas specifically for workers for Central America. So this legal pathways piece is also something that all three leaders agree was an important element of our shared response.
But similarly, there was a discussion about our law enforcement cooperation, taking down trafficking and smuggling networks that prey on vulnerable migrants, and making sure that the flows at our respective borders and ports of entry is controlled and legal and that we do all that we can to deal with the irregular migration in a safe and humane way. So I think that was a really constructive conversation.
MR ICE: Unfortunately, that’s all the time we have for today. I would like to thank everyone for dialing in and participating in our briefing, which is – of course is on the record. I’d also like to thank our briefer, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols, for joining us. Thank you, Assistant Secretary, it’s much appreciated. With that, this briefing is concluded and the embargo is lifted. Have a good weekend.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NICHOLS: Thank you.