Beyond the GOP’s framing of her job, Harris faces major issues in working with Central America and Mexico on the corruption, poverty, violence and other destabilizing conditions driving thousands of people to migrate north to the United States. In addition to having some of the highest homicide rates in the world, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have been rocked in recent years by political turmoil, natural disasters and Covid-19 and the economic downturn it’s caused.
The pandemic appears to have caused a dramatic drop in migration from the region in 2020, but migrant crossings have surged upward again in 2021. U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel encountered more foreign nationals from the Northern Triangle through the first half of fiscal year 2021 than they did in all of fiscal year 2020, according to the Congressional Research Service.
For now, Harris has opted to center her work around Guatemala and Mexico, while lower level officials have taken on talks with the governments of Honduras and El Salvador, whom the administration has less faith in.
While more open to collaboration, the Guatemalan and Mexican governments have their own set of issues. In Guatemala, the government is seeking to undercut civil society groups. In Mexico, López Obrador has slammed the U.S. for giving money to non-profits that have been critical of his government.
“She does have to really deliver a message to the government of Guatemala about governance and rule of law, but she also has to make sure she doesn’t come across as the overbearing American official that’s trying to tell Central Americans what to do,” Selee said. “That’s a really tough tightrope to walk.”
Advocates and community leaders in Guatemala on Thursday urged the Biden administration to take concrete action to improve conditions for Guatemalans in their home country and those already in the U.S. That includes rescinding Title 42, which allows the U.S. to almost immediately expel migrants arriving at the border and granting Guatemalans Temporary Protected Status, which would grant legal status to certain migrants already in the U.S.
The advocates, speaking at a press conference ahead of Harris’ trip, made clear, however, that anti-corruption needs to be a centerpiece of any strategy toward the region — a point that Harris has agreed with in public remarks.
The Biden administration needs to take “very firm positions and make very firm decisions on issues of corruption in Guatemala. As long as those positions are not taken, they’re not supporting us,” Carolina Escobar Sarti, a Guatemalan human rights activist working with Grupo Articulador de la Sociedad Civil en Materia Migratoria, a coalition of immigrant advocacy and human rights groups, said at the press conference.
Immigrant advocates and civil society groups in the U.S. and Central America are also concerned about the Biden administration’s push for both Mexico and Guatemala to help crack down on migrants heading for the southern U.S. border.
Beyond enforcement, there needs to be a “commitment to doing the greatest effort to amend [U.S.] immigration laws” and “have a real investment in development not only in Central America but in south, southeast of Mexico,” Martha Bárcena, former Mexican ambassador to the U.S., said.
The Biden administration’s aid to Central America has largely been measured thus far. However, Biden has proposed a $4 billion aid package as part of a long-term strategy toward the region.
In April, the U.S. Agency for International Development deployed a disaster assistance response team to help with humanitarian needs. That same month, Harris announced the U.S. would send an additional $310 million for humanitarian relief and to tackle food insecurity in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Harris also announced that a dozen companies and organizations — including Mastercard, Nespresso and Microsoft — have committed to invest in the Northern Triangle countries to help spur economic development in the region.
Immigrant advocates point to polling that shows addressing root causes isn’t only the right policy, but the right politics, too. A majority of Americans — 86 percent of Democrats, 87 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of Independents — agree that the U.S. government should work more closely with other countries in the region to preemptively reduce migration, according to a Civiqs poll conducted for Immigration Hub in April.
“She has led with this message of giving hope and that makes sense to people,” said Sergio Gonzales, executive director of the advocacy group Immigration Hub and former senior policy adviser to Harris on immigration and homeland security. “It’s important to the American public because it’s a message people can relate to and understand” even if there are big variations on how they believe immigration policy should be handled, he added.
The message of hope is one thing but the carrot and stick approach, experts of the region say, is key. Stephen McFarland, a former ambassador to Guatemala to Presidents Bush and Obama, who has spent the last decade consulting in the region, said the followup on promises and possible threats is going to be the real challenge, because it will force the leaders to actually make good on their promises.
“They will reinforce the administration’s credibility, because if you only talk nice and don’t pressure and make good on threats, then they won’t take you seriously,” McFarland said.
Aides say Harris knows that a lot of this is going to depend on her ability to convince Northern Triangle countries to actually work to address corruption, violence and poverty more than they have in the past. One said it will “require political will from the governments of the region” to manage migration, which is something she will be making very clear to leaders.
“She is going to be one that’s going to be making a lot of these decisions because she is leading the effort. But at her request, we have put together carrots and sticks. And she will deploy them as she manages the leadership on this for the president,” a senior administration official said.
The Biden administration is trying to manage expectations for Kamala Harris’ first international trip as vice president.
The goal for her two-day visit to Guatemala and Mexico isn’t to roll out a massive plan to solve the problems driving thousands to flee the region, according to administration officials, people close to the White House and experts, but simply to show that the U.S. cares and isn’t just looking for quick fixes.
Nevertheless, Harris faces an early test not only of her diplomatic skills, but also of her ability to be a leader on the world stage.
In the immediate term, Harris needs to prove she’s the right person to lead the Biden administration’s efforts to stem the migration of thousands of Central Americans and Mexicans, something previous administrations — both Democrat and Republican — have failed to do. In the long term, showing she can handle a complex foreign policy issue is a must for her future political ambitions.
It’s no small task, given the deeply rooted challenges in the region and Harris’ limited exposure to foreign policy as an elected official in California.
“Migration in the Western Hemisphere is a structural issue that is not going to be resolved in a matter of six months,” said Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council’s senior director for the Western Hemisphere, who has been briefing Harris for months on the issue.
In order to truly begin tackling the root causes of migration, Gonzalez added, the vice president “has to be down there in person, she has to engage on these issues, she has to talk to these leaders directly as part of her playing a leadership role.”
Harris lands in Guatemala City Sunday night ahead of a sit-down with President Alejandro Giammattei on Monday, followed by events with Guatemalan community leaders and entrepreneurs. On Tuesday, she will be in Mexico City to meet with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and participate in roundtables with women entrepreneurs and labor leaders.
Administration officials, Harris aides and experts say this is an opportunity to demonstrate, in a high-profile way, that she is genuinely committed to engaging community and business leaders in the two countries, and not just their governments.
“She can’t just go down and deliver an announcement of aid,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute. “She also has to be seen as listening to people, because if the strategy in Central America is going to work, there has to be a two-way dialogue open with people who are working for change there.”
Selee summed up what he foresees from the trip: “Modest expectations, solid foundations.”
Administration officials point out Harris has been keen on meeting with more than the leaders of Guatemala and Mexico. She has also had conversations with NGOs, leaders in the private sector and justice advocates — examples that officials say show a different approach than previous administrations, including when Biden was tasked with the same job as veep to President Barack Obama.
Rafts carry passengers and supplies across the Suchiate River between Tecun Uman, Guatemala (left) and Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, on June 5. Vice President Kamala Harris heads to Guatemala and Mexico on her first foreign trip Sunday. | Moises Castillo/AP Photo
White House aides stress that the trip is meant to be a public launch for actions that have either been in the works or in planning stages for months all over the federal government.
“Having a head of state visit, the vice president in this case, really galvanizes a whole host of actions,” one senior administration official said.
“I expect when she comes back, she’ll want to bring the Cabinet together again to make sure we’re making progress [on] the goals that she’s set to make sure that the governments themselves are meeting our expectations for their level of engagement, to make sure that the international community is engaged.”
For months, aides who are experts in the region have been holed up with Harris, briefing and presenting her with a range of options for negotiations and conversations with the leaders she’ll be meeting with.
“She is going to be ultimately making some of these calls once she’s in the meeting. I think what she’s trying to do is figure out, as a former prosecutor, how is she going to make her best argument?” a senior administration aide said.
The trip is also a chance for the administration to reset what her role on immigration policy actually is. Harris was tasked with leading diplomatic efforts in the Northern Triangle and Mexico nearly three months ago, but aides admit in private that the rollout could have been “smoother.” The initial announcement that Harris would oversee efforts to address the root causes of migration — which came amid a spike in the number of migrants, particularly unaccompanied children, arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border — prompted Republicans to label her the “border czar” and blame her for continued influx of migrants there.
But aides say they aren’t focused on correcting the record for Republicans, because the trip likely won’t change the GOP’s tactics. “They’re deliberately not getting it. It’s not hard to understand but they want to try to tie her up in the border czar position for their own purposes,” a senior administration official said.