Watchdog urges Congress to probe whether Biden 'bartered' vaccines for Mexico migration crackdown

A government watchdog group on Friday demanded that Congress exercise its oversight powers to determine whether the Biden administration used surplus coronavirus vaccines as a bargaining tool to pressure the Mexican government to crack down more harshly on rising U.S.-bound migration.

Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, said in a statement that he is "concerned about the possibility that President Biden may have bartered millions of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to achieve his anti-migration goals."

"Congress should determine whether the U.S. is living up to its responsibilities to asylum seekers, rebuilding the U.S.-Mexico relationship undermined by Donald Trump, and acting to ensure the most rapid deployment of vaccines possible across the globe."
—Jeff Hauser, Revolving Door Project

"The Biden administration should not be in the business of trading Mexican lives for those of other Central and South Americans, for whom migration to the U.S. is often life-saving," said Hauser.

On Thursday, the Biden White House announced a plan to send 2.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine to Mexico, an agreement that came amid reports that the U.S. president has been urging his Mexican counterpart behind the scenes to do more to stem the number of migrants arriving at the border between the neighboring countries. The AstraZeneca shot has not yet been approved for use in the U.S.

At around the same time the Biden administration made public its intention to grant Mexico's request for surplus vaccine doses—which the U.S. had previously denied other nations seeking access to the stockpile—the Mexican government said Thursday that it would tighten restrictions on travel through its southern border with Guatemala and its northern border with the United States. The timing immediately prompted questions about a potential quid pro quo.

Unnamed U.S. and Mexican officials insisted to news outlets that the newly announced migration crackdown did not come in exchange for the vaccine doses. "It's not a quid pro quo. It's a parallel negotiation," an anonymous senior Mexican diplomat told the Washington Post.

But White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki's roundabout answer to a reporter's direct question Thursday about whether there was any quid pro quo involved in the talks with Mexico raised eyebrows.

"There have been expectations set outside of—unrelated—to any vaccine doses or request for them that [Mexico] would be partners in dealing with the crisis on the border," Psaki said during a press briefing on Thursday. "And there have been requests, unrelated... for doses of these vaccines. Every relationship has multiple layers of conversations that are happening at the same time."

Asked whether the U.S. is using its vaccine stockpile to "effect diplomacy," Psaki responded: "I'm actually trying to convey that with every country, there's rarely just one issue you're discussing with any country at one time. Right? Certainly that's not the case with Mexico; it's not the case with any country around the world."

"I wouldn't read into it more than our ability to provide, to lend vaccine doses of a vaccine that we have some available supply on to a neighboring country where there is a lot of traffic that goes back and forth between the countries," Psaki added.

Hauser of the Revolving Door Project called Psaki's explanation for the vaccine agreement and coinciding migrant crackdown "clumsy at best" and demanded "congressional oversight" of the arrangements.

"Given the high stakes of these issues," said Hauser, "Congress should determine whether the U.S. is living up to its responsibilities to asylum seekers, rebuilding the U.S.-Mexico relationship undermined by Donald Trump, and acting to ensure the most rapid deployment of vaccines possible across the globe."

Addressing the Biden administration's decision to donate 2.5 million vaccine doses to Mexico and 1.5 million to Canada on its own terms, Public Citizen's Peter Maybarduk said in a statement Thursday that "charitable sharing and rationing" are "no substitute for the ambitious manufacturing program that the world needs and that the U.S. can provide, for a fraction of the cost of inaction."

Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization, argued in a report last month that a $25 billion investment in vaccine production by the U.S. would "produce enough vaccine for low- and middle-income countries" that are currently struggling to inoculate their populations. As Common Dreams has reported, the U.S. and other rich nations are currently blocking an India and South Africa-led effort to temporarily suspend vaccine-related patent rights to facilitate global production and distribution.

"As people across the U.S. appreciate this 100 million dose milestone, it is important to remember that for most of the world, there are no vaccines in sight and no foreseeable end to the pandemic," said Maybarduk. "Instead of only rationing better, the U.S. can help the world manufacture more, and ration less, and in so doing better prepare capabilities to defend against coronavirus variants that may threaten people living in the U.S.

"President Biden should announce a plan to help the world make billions of more doses of Covid-19 vaccine within a year's time," Maybarduk added. "Each day we wait to be more ambitious about our global response, more people will lose their lives."