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Harris, Hispanic Caucus meet on Central America

Vice President Harris on Monday hosted members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) to discuss root causes of Central American and Mexican immigration to the United States.

The talks connected Harris, the administration's point person on the diplomatic push to improve conditions in the region, with some of the members of Congress most invested in the plan's success.

"There's a bold vision that is international in scope with coalition-building in reducing the violence, the corruption, the deterioration of democratic rule of law, poverty, hunger and increasing hope and economic development with job opportunities so that families are secure, safe and healthy in their home country," said CHC Chair Rep. Raúl Ruiz (D-Calif.).

According to several meeting attendees, Harris touted meetings she's held with corporate leaders eager to invest in the Northern Triangle - Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

And Harris told CHC members the administration's strategy is based on engaging multiple actors, from third countries with interests in the region, to the private sector, to non-governmental organizations and civil society in the region, as well as with the central governments in the Northern Triangle and Mexico. 

"Plan A is to try to work with these governments," said Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.). "Were it to become obvious they have no interest in solving their own problems, then we have to work with individuals."

The Biden administration's strategy of reducing migration through attention to root causes - rather than ever-increasing enforcement stateside - has been praised by regional experts, with the caveat that power structures in Mexico and Central America are likely to resist the effort. 

All three Northern Triangle governments have over the last five years flexed political muscle against local and international anti-corruption institutions, and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has taken to accusing the United States of funding "coup plotters" in his country. 

Torres said those behaviors were magnified by the Trump administration, which largely limited its engagement in the region to economic threats mollified by promises of increased immigration enforcement.

"They have benefitted from the last four years of no strategies, of looking the other way, they loved it ... simply because they want to continue business as usual," said Torres. 

Ruiz said the Trump administration's approach worsened migratory pressures by focusing on enforcement and defunding local development programs started in the Obama administration.

"As a doctor I know very well that without the right diagnosis you cannot have the right treatment," said Ruiz. 

"We know that the cyclical nature of mass migration to the north happens regardless of who is president and will continue to happen until we have the right diagnosis and the root causes of why they are leaving their countries," he added. 

Harris told the lawmakers that she's also engaged with countries like Japan to consider investment in the region, and secured a UN briefing on the Northern Triangle through Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

"I emphasized the opportunity to work with the UN to combat corruption in Central America - and stressed the importance of bolstering the rule of law and concerns over the erosion of democracy. It makes a huge difference to have a leader like Vice President Harris working together with Congress to address this longstanding challenge," said Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas), a member of the House Foreign Relations Committee. 

And the lawmakers discussed vaccine diplomacy in the region with Harris, as the U.S. rollout has vastly outpaced rollout in Mexico and the Northern Triangle.

Like with development aid, lawmakers expressed concern that power brokers and governments in the region could misuse vaccine aid.

"I think the United States needs to distribute the vaccine directly to the people to keep the potential politics out of it," said Rep. Vicente González (D-Texas).

"We need to begin with the border states and the places Americans travel to," said González, who represents the border city of McAllen, Texas. "Let's start where we engage the most but with the idea of inoculating the entire country."

The CHC-Harris summit also served to ease some political pressure, as Republicans have criticized the vice president for not paying attention to the U.S.-Mexico border, despite her assignment's focus on root causes in the Northern Triangle.

Republicans say conditions at the border are inextricably linked to regional migratory patterns; Democrats contend that border management is the realm of the Department of Homeland Security and separate from designing a development plan for Central America.

"There's a lot of noise from Republican lawmakers trying to obstruct the work she was tasked to do in the Northern Triangle," said Torres. "Their strategy to distract has not worked at all because she is very focused [and] very knowledgeable about what is going on in the region."

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