Jacquelyn Martin / AP
When Vice President Kamala Harris arrives in Guatemala on Sunday for her first overseas trip in office, she will follow the same politically treacherous path that President Joe Biden took when he was in office. The mission: to help solve deep-seated problems that are driving tens of thousands of Central Americans to seek asylum on the US-Mexico border.
“He’s really picking up where then-Vice President Biden left off,” said Symone Sanders, Harris’ press secretary.
The record number of migrants has created a humanitarian challenge as well as a huge political headache for the Biden administration. Polls indicate that is a red flag for President Biden, as his approval of his handling of immigration is far worse than his overall job approval rating.
Biden asked Harris to take care of the problem, although not all of it. Her portfolio, like his in 2014 and 2015, aims to try to address the root causes of the migration crisis. Republicans have criticized Harris for not visiting the border and taking his own trips to draw attention to conditions there.
On his trip, Harris will meet with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, as well as civil society groups and business leaders.
“We have the ability to give people hope,” Harris said at a recent White House event to promote business investment in the region. “And I hope, particularly in this case, that if they stay, help is on the way.”
Harris’s focus is on the countries known as the Northern Triangle: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. They have been hit by natural disasters and have problems of violence, corruption and poverty that go back decades. The pandemic has only made things worse. Six years ago, then-Vice President Biden was in Guatemala talking about some of the same problems.
“Let me be frank: some in my own administration and in the US Congress have asked me, ‘How do we know this is not going to be business as usual? How is this different from all of the above? Biden said on that trip, back in 2005. “Well, the president and I believe this is the time when it will be different.”
But it was no different. Leaders have changed, but problems in the region persist.
“It’s very clear that we have a refugee crisis in our hemisphere,” said Cecilia Muñoz, one of former President Barack Obama’s top advisers when she handed Biden this same vice-presidential portfolio. By executing the same play now, Biden is indicating that the administration is taking this seriously, Munoz said.
Corruption, top priority: Zúñiga
The top priority for the United States is to toughen up the corruption and undemocratic practices of the region’s governments, said Ricardo Zúñiga, the State Department’s special envoy to Central America.
“It is not us imposing on the United States, or imposing American values, or imposing American laws,” Zúñiga told NPR. “All we are saying is, comply with the law that is on the books and comply with local liability demands.”
The message may not get across well. Relations between the United States and Mexico have suffered some bumps lately, especially when it comes to sharing security intelligence and US funding of Mexican free speech groups.
López Obrador had a good working relationship with former President Donald Trump, who focused on Mexico preventing Central American migrants from reaching the U.S. border, but otherwise stayed out of Mexico’s affairs, Carlos said. Heredia, Mexican economist at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics.
“So now it is different. And the president of Mexico does not feel comfortable dealing with a neighbor who has opinions and has a lot to say about issues that should be of common interest,” Heredia said.
Mexico’s approach to the migration issue continues to depend heavily on the police and the military, said Tonatiuh Guillén López, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who resigned as director of the Mexican Immigration Institute after López Obrador sent the army to detain the migrants.
“We still have control, the police, the migration plan that President Trump imposed on Mexico,” Guillén said.
Although he continues to enjoy great popularity, López Obrador faces mounting criticism for his attacks on the media, underfunding independent institutions and publicly criticizing judges who rule against his populist policies. But Mariana Aparicio Ramírez, from the Binational Observatory of Mexico-United States Relations, said she hopes the meeting will focus more on cooperation than on US concerns on these issues.
Vaccines on the way
Harris has already announced $ 310 million in funding to help with immediate food shortages and disaster recovery in the region. It will also come with good news about the vaccine trade in the US The administration is donating US-produced vaccines to Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries as part of a larger plan to share millions of doses with countries in need.
But beyond this short-term help, a question looming over Harris’s trip is how to make sure this time is truly different from America’s previous efforts.
“We are putting a very critical eye on the programs that have and have not been successful and we are looking to expand the ones that have been,” said Mazin Alfaqih, a senior adviser at Harris focused on the Northern Triangle. “We are also looking to expand partnerships, understanding that the US government and foreign aid alone cannot address this problem.”
But Alfaqih said Harris needs willing partners in the region. That’s something that hampered earlier US-led efforts, said José Cárdenas, who served in the George W. Bush administration.
“The problem year after year is that entrenched interests in these countries are not interested in economic reform,” Cárdenas said. “They will tell the Yankees everything they want to hear, but when the Yankees leave, it will be back to normal.”
And while the work Harris is doing could produce long-term improvements, Cárdenas says there is an immediate political crisis with damning images and heartbreaking stories coming from the border. He says the Biden administration’s softer approach to border law enforcement is likely to lure migrants into trying to do so, creating pull factors in addition to strong push factors in these countries.
“The president knew exactly what kind of rumors he was sending his vice president to when he gave him this assignment,” said Benjamin Gedan, who served on Obama’s National Security Council and is now at the Wilson Center. He says Harris has an impossible task because there is an expectation that somehow she can deliver immediate results.
The problems of the region are all interconnected. Without reducing corruption and violence, it is difficult to convince companies to invest. Without investment, job opportunities are limited and people look to America. But all migration depletes human capital, making the region less attractive for business investment.
“One of the ways to help reduce the momentum of migration is to really create a sense of participation in the local economy and opportunities for that to happen,” said Eric Farnsworth, who worked on these issues in the Clinton Administration and is now at the Council of the Americas. “That will require some investment, and I think the investment will materialize if conditions are right there.”