WASHINGTON – Vice President Kamala Harris is set to make her debut on the world stage this weekend in Central America, a high-stakes trip that will test her diplomatic skills as she seeks to address a migrant border issue that the administration has struggled with.
Harris’ meetings with government leaders in Mexico and Guatemala come just over two months after President Joe Biden tasked her with improving the quality of life in Northern Triangle countries — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — where nationals are fleeing to the U.S. at heightened levels with the expectation they will not be turned away.
She has consulted an array of Latin American experts and groups that work with countries in preparation for her first foreign trip as vice president, one that will set the tone for the Biden administration’s relationship with neighboring countries after a previously tumultuous four years.
“There’s little room for error, and there’s maximum exposure,” said Brett Bruen, a former U.S. diplomat who was director of Global Engagement at the White House under former President Barack Obama. “It’s not like traveling overseas as a senator; you are under a much brighter lens.”
Harris’ previous foreign experience is limited. She made two trips abroad as a U.S. senator to meet with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and traveled to Mexico as attorney general of California to discuss transnational crime. She is slated to arrive in Guatemala on June 6 and fly to Mexico on June 7 to meet with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Experts on the region said they view Harris’ trip as a positive step toward resetting relations with countries whose governments have felt ignored or misunderstood by previous administrations.
Former President Donald Trump never traveled to Central or South America during his tenure and suspended aid to the home countries of many migrants. He routinely insulted the nations’ governments and made a crude remark to lawmakers about countries like El Salvador.
Growing political problems in El Salvador and Honduras, two countries that Harris is not visiting on this trip, have also created new challenges for the Biden administration in the region, experts said.
“She’s diving right into the deep end, because it is a really challenging set of circumstances,” said Jenna Ben-Yehuda, the Truman National Security Project’s president and CEO. “It’s not as though she’s heading off to Canada for her first trip or to Western Europe. She’s really right into the frying pan here.”
Migration at the U.S.-Mexico border reached an elevated level even before the warmer months when unauthorized crossings typically spike, U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows. The increase began in the final months of the Trump administration, coinciding with two hurricanes that hit Central America, and have continued to rise each month since.
Republicans blame Biden’s immigration policies for the influx. Biden administration officials have stated that the border is not open during the pandemic, except to unaccompanied children. But Republicans say Biden’s termination of a Trump-era policy that required asylum seekers to remain in Mexico until their court dates contributed to the increase in migrant arrivals since he took office.
“Vice President Harris has to go down to those countries and tell them to strengthen their rule of law, even as the Biden administration is undermining rule of law on our southern border,” said James Roberts, a research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation and a former foreign service officer.
Harris’ advisers told reporters during a briefing that the goal of her meetings is to deepen relationships with host nation governments and community leaders and to engage with innovators and entrepreneurs about ways to increase economic opportunity in the countries.
Discussions are also expected to take place about corruption, climate change, poverty, violence, COVID-19 cooperation, the rule of law and other issues the Biden administration views as drivers of migration.
“It’s going to be an honest and real conversation,” Harris said of her meeting with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei in remarks to reporters. “I’m there to listen as much as I am to share perspective.”
Biden has pledged to send Northern Triangle countries $4 billion in assistance, and Harris announced in April that the administration would send those nations $310 million in disaster relief aid that is intended to help with food shortages and protection for refugees. The U.S. said this week that it would also send approximately 6 million vaccine doses to South and Central American countries, including Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. It has already shared nearly 4 million vaccine doses with Mexico.
Critics of the Biden administration say the nations’ challenges will not be solved with more monetary assistance.
John Bolton, who was national security adviser to Trump when the former president froze aid to Central American countries, said the Biden administration needs to make clear to migrants that undesirable economic conditions are not covered by refugee law.
“They’re going to say, well I may not like it here in San Salvador, but I sure as hell don’t need the exercise of walking to Mexican border and walking back again. That’s the point,” Bolton said. “It has nothing to do with foreign aid, and if they go that route, there’s really no limit to the money they can pour into those three countries.”
Mazin Alfaqih, a special adviser to Harris for the Northern Triangle, told reporters that the administration wants to broaden its partnerships with businesses and multilateral organizations.
“[T]he U.S. government and foreign assistance alone cannot tackle this problem,” Alfaqih said. “There needs to be political will on the part of the government.”
Harris is largely picking up where Biden left off as vice president when he was in charge of the diplomatic efforts to reduce migration from the region.
Her visit to Central America is aimed primarily at establishing cooperative agreements with those nations in the short term to meet their immediate food and safety needs and direct prospective migrants to alternative avenues of work in their home countries or elsewhere, said Earl Wayne, a public policy fellow at the Wilson Center who served as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico during Obama’s presidency.
Over the longer term, Wayne said migrants are more likely to stay in their home countries if they have the prospect of additional training, better work and improved safety, which local groups and businesses that Harris is meeting on her trip can help with.
“One of the problems … is that the United States has not been consistent in the strategy that it’s using or the tools that it’s using,” Wayne said.
Noah Gottschalk, who is global policy lead at Oxfam America, a nonprofit group that Harris has consulted, said it is also important to recognize that Central American migration to the U.S. will never completely stop. He said families will continue to seek to avoid political persecution and reunify with loved ones, and because of the safety and economic opportunity that the country provides, the U.S. will always be an attractive destination for migrants.
“Leaving home really is your last resort,” Gottschalk said. “So what we want is to make forced migration as rare as we possibly can by addressing all the reasons that people have to leave, because it’s a tremendous disruption to people’s lives, to communities, to the country itself; people don’t want to have to leave.”
Story by Francesca Chambers, McClatchy Washington Bureau.