Vice President Harris on Monday pleaded with migrants from Central American countries to stay home in a speech in Guatemala during her first foreign trip.
Harris has the tricky task of reintroducing the United States as a friend and ally to the region while finding ways to reduce migration, which has often been Central America's only social safety valve amid worsening humanitarian conditions.
The vice president was blunt in her message to Central Americans, repeating the line, "Do not come."
To soften the blow, she framed the Biden administration's closed-door policy in a message of hope for the region.
"I want to emphasize that the goal of our work is to help Guatemalans find hope at home. At the same time I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States Mexico border: Do not come, do not come," Harris said.
The Biden administration's Central America strategy represents, like many other aspects of Biden's immigration policy, a stark shift from the Trump administration's initiatives.
While former 's policy was catalogued as cruel by its opponents, it was simple: Mexico and Central America could avoid monetary sanctions through tough enforcement of migratory laws.
The Biden administration's more holistic approach offers humanitarian benefits, de-escalating the enforcement measures that can have a punitive effect on desperate migrants, but it presents a risk for Harris, whose political future will likely be forever tied to the strategy's results.
In March, Biden put Harris in charge of the administration's efforts to stem the flow of migrants seeking entry to the United States at the southern border. She is also tasked with forming partnerships with Northern Triangle countries to get at the root causes of a surge of immigration during the early months of the administration.
In a press conference alongside Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, Harris announced a handful of new initiatives, including a joint task force to combat human trafficking and smuggling, a young women’s empowerment program and a U.S. anti-corruption task force.
She said that the U.S. would invest in agricultural businesses and affordable housing and help support entrepreneurs in Guatemala. The White House said that it plans to invest $48 million over four years to boost economic opportunity in Guatemala, according to a fact sheet.
Harris also announced that the U.S. would send a half-million surplus coronavirus vaccines to Guatemala as part of a broader effort to boost the global vaccine supply.
But Harris's repeated appeal for migrants to stay home overshadowed the minutiae of the visit, as it laid bare the harsh truth that migrant apprehension numbers at the U.S.-Mexico border remain the standard by which immigration policy success is measured.
Biden administration officials have for months leaned on the closed-borders warning to would-be migrants, despite the low likelihood of its success at changing minds, either in Central America or among the administration's domestic opponents.
And the message is in some ways contrary to the underlying facts of Harris's Central America strategy: an explicit acceptance that conditions in Central America must change for regional migration patterns to ever be controlled.
Harris told reporters that she was focused on addressing the root causes of migration in a way that delivers “significant” and “tangible” results “as opposed to grand gestures” when asked to respond to Republican criticism that she and Biden have not visited the southern border.
“The reason I am here in Guatemala, as my first trip as vice president of the United States, is because this is one of our highest priorities,” Harris said.
Harris said the new Biden administration anti-corruption task force headed by the Justice, Treasury and State departments would work to support Guatemalan prosecutors to combat transnational crime.
For Central American countries like Guatemala and for Mexico to some extent the change in attitudes from the Trump administration to the Biden administration is creating political whiplash.
U.S.-Guatemala relations have recently been measured largely by anti-corruption efforts, as well as the Guatemalan government's attitudes toward independent and international prosecutors working in the country.
Giammattei's predecessor, Jimmy Morales, terminated an agreement with the United Nations in 2019 while Giammattei was president-elect where Guatemala allowed an international body to prosecute certain serious crimes in the country.
The termination of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala right before Giammattei took office caused a rift between the incoming government and many Democrats in the United States, who saw the move as a parting gift from Morales to corrupt elites in the country.
And under Giammattei, Guatemala's lawmakers refused to swear in Gloria Porras, a judge known for her anti-corruption stance, even after she was elected to a five-year term on the country's Constitutional Court.
That led to an invitation for Porras, another exiled Guatemalan judge and two former anti-corruption prosecutors, to meet with Harris in Washington last month.
Giammattei on Monday touted his administration's public transparency efforts, laying some blame on social media misinformation for U.S. perceptions of corruption in his country.
"We have no interest or desire to hide anything. Quite the contrary, the more international certification there is that we are doing the right thing, we will continue to get rid of that very different narrative in the United States than we have here," said Giammattei.
Harris's strategy includes support for regional NGOs and civil society organizations, as well as the potential for individualized sanctions, including withholding U.S. visas and access to the U.S. financial system.
By visiting Guatemala first the root causes initiative also includes El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico Harris allowed for a reset of relations with Giammattei, who came to power during Trump's tenure, a time when the United States showed less interest in combating corruption in the region.
“We will look to root out corruption wherever it exists because we know that it’s not in the best interest of democracy,” Harris said, describing fighting corruption as essential to bolstering democracies.
Harris is due to travel to Mexico on Monday night, where she will meet with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a key U.S. partner in enforcing regional migration policy, before returning to the U.S.
The López Obrador visit is expected to present distinct challenges from the meetings with Giammattei, as U.S.-Mexico relations cover a wider swath of issues, Mexico is much larger and López Obrador has expressed discontent with U.S. support of anti-corruption NGOs in Mexico.
López Obrador on Monday touched on the issue at his daily news conference but said U.S. financing of Mexican NGOs is "not formally on the agenda" for the meeting with Harris.
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