US, Mexico to clamp down on illegal immigration, leaders say

FILE PHOTO: Virtual meeting of the CELAC Presidents in response to the police raid at the Mexican embassy in Quito

By Ted Hesson and Raul Cortes

WASHINGTON/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) -The United States and Mexico plan to clamp down on illegal immigration at their shared border, leaders from both countries said on Monday, vowing to disrupt irregular crossings that have reached record levels in recent years.

In a phone conversation on Sunday, U.S. President Joe Biden and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said their administrations would soon take steps to decrease illegal crossings while also addressing the economic and security problems that cause people to migrate.

"In the short term, the two leaders ordered their national security teams to work together to immediately implement concrete measures to significantly reduce irregular border crossings while protecting human rights," the leaders said in a joint statement

Biden, a Democrat seeking another four-year term in the Nov. 5 election, has toughened his approach to border security in recent months as immigration has emerged as a top concern among voting-age Americans.

Republicans, including Biden's opponent, former President Donald Trump, have criticized the president for rolling back restrictive Trump-era border policies and failing to stem higher levels of illegal crossings.

The White House has considered utilizing Biden's executive authority to block migrants at the border, Reuters has reported, but such a move could trigger legal challenges and backlash from some Democrats.

The White House is also discussing ways to provide temporary legal status and work permits to immigrants in the U.S. illegally who are married to American citizens, which could serve as a political counterbalance to restrictions at the border.

Biden backed a bipartisan U.S. Senate bill earlier this year that would grant him new authority to turn away migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, but Republicans rejected the measure after Trump came out in opposition.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said last week that the Biden administration still supports the bill but that "we're always going to look at our options."

Mexico will hold a presidential election on June 2 although immigration is not a top voter concern, according to public opinion polls. Former Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, Lopez Obrador's successor in the leftist National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), remains the frontrunner to win the election.

Lopez Obrador told reporters on Monday he had spoken with Biden about keeping the countries' border open to legal immigration "but not allowing irregular migration."

The U.S. Border Patrol caught a monthly record of 250,000 migrants crossing illegally in December, but numbers have dropped significantly since then, with 137,000 arrests in March.

Lopez Obrador attributed the reduced arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border in part to social programs Mexico has backed in other Latin American countries from where migrants originate.

U.S. and Mexican officials have cited increased enforcement by Mexico as a factor contributing to the decrease in crossings.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington, Raul Cortes and Kylie Madry in Mexico City; Editing by Brendan O'Boyle, Mica Rosenberg, Nick Macfie and Jonathan Oatis)