When Vice President Kamala Harris arrives in Guatemala on Sunday for her first foreign trip in office, she’ll follow the same politically treacherous path President Joe Biden took when he was in the role. The mission: to help solve deep-seated problems driving tens of thousands of Central American people to try to seek asylum at the U.S-Mexico border.
“She is really picking up where then-Vice President Biden left off,” said Symone Sanders, press secretary to Harris.
The record number of migrants has created a humanitarian challenge, as well as massive political headache for the Biden administration. Polling indicates it’s a red flag for President Biden, with approval of his handling of immigration much worse than his overall job approval rating.
Biden asked Harris to take on the problem — though not all of it. Her portfolio, like his in 2014 and 2015, is to try to address the root causes of the migration crisis. Republicans have criticized Harris for not visiting the border, taking their own trips to draw attention to conditions there.
On her trip, Harris will meet with the Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, as well as civil society groups and business leaders.
“We have the capacity to give people hope,” Harris said at a recent White House event to promote business investments in the region. “And hope, in particular in this case, that if they stay, help is on the way.”
Harris’ focus is on countries known as the Northern Triangle: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. They’ve been hit by natural disasters and have problems with violence, corruption and poverty that go back decades. The pandemic has only made matters worse. Six years ago, then-Vice President Biden was in Guatemala talking about some of the very same problems.
“Let me be frank: some in my own government and in the U.S. Congress have asked me, ‘How do we know this isn’t just going to be business as usual? How is this any different than anything that’s come before?'” Biden said on that trip, back in 2005. “Well, the president and I believe that this is the time that it will be different.”
But it wasn’t different. The leaders have changed, but the problems in the region persist.
“It’s really clear we have a refugee crisis in our hemisphere,” said Cecilia Muñoz, a top aide to former President Barack Obama when he gave Biden this very same vice presidential portfolio. By running the same play now, Biden is signaling that the administration is taking this seriously, Muñoz said.
Corruption a top priority: Zúñiga
The top priority for the United States is getting tough on corruption and anti-democratic practices by governments in the region, said Ricardo Zúñiga, the State Department’s special envoy to Central America.
“This is not us imposing the United States, or imposing U.S. values, or imposing U.S. laws,” Zúñiga told NPR. “All we are saying is, comply with law that is on the books and comply with local demands for accountability.”
The message may not go over well. U.S.-Mexico relations have hit some bumps lately, especially when it comes to sharing security intelligence, and U.S. funding of Mexican free speech groups.
López Obrador had a good working relationship with former President Donald Trump, who was focused on Mexico stopping Central American migrants from getting to the U.S. border, but otherwise stayed out of Mexico’s affairs, said Carlos Heredia, a 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 that is opinionated 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 rely heavily on the police and military, said Tonatiuh Guillen Lopez, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who resigned as head of Mexico’s Immigration Institute after López Obrador sent in the military to stop migrants.
“We still have the control, police, migration plan that was imposed on Mexico by President Trump,” Guillen said.
Despite still enjoying high popularity, López Obrador is facing rising criticism for his attacks on the media, defunding independent institutions and publicly criticizing judges who rule against his populist policies. But Mariana Aparicio Ramirez of the Binational Mexico-United States Relationship Observatory said she expects the meeting will focus more on cooperation than U.S. concerns over 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. She will also arrive with good news about U.S. vaccine sharing. The administration is donating U.S.-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 aid, a question looming over Harris’s trip is how to make sure this time really will be different from previous U.S. efforts.
“We are taking a very critical eye at the programs that have and have not been successful and looking to scale up ones that have been,” said Mazin Alfaqih, a senior adviser to Harris focused on the Northern Triangle. “We’re also looking to broaden partnerships, understanding that the U.S. government and foreign assistance alone cannot tackle this problem.”
But Alfaqih said Harris needs willing partners in the region. That’s something that stymied previous U.S.-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 that they want to hear, but when the Yankees leave, it’s back to business as usual.”
And while the work Harris is undertaking could yield long-term improvements, Cárdenas says there’s an immediate political crisis with damning images and heart-wrenching stories coming from the border. He says the Biden administration’s softer approach to border enforcement is likely drawing migrants to try to make it, creating pull factors in addition to the strong push factors in these countries.
“The president knew just what kind of buzz saw he was sending his vice president into when he gave her this assignment,” said Benjamin Gedan, who worked on Obama’s National Security Council and is now at the Wilson Center. He says Harris has an impossible assignment because there’s an expectation that she should somehow be able to deliver immediate results.
The problems in the region are all interconnected. Without cutting corruption and violence, it’s hard to convince companies to invest. Without investments, job opportunities are limited and people look to America. But all the migration drains human capital, making the region less attractive for business investment.
“One of the ways to help reduce the impulse 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 the conditions there are appropriate.”