Harris tests migration waters with Latin America trip

Vice President Harris
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Vice President Harris will visit Guatemala and Mexico starting Sunday in the first foreign trip of her tenure, amid political unrest in Latin America that complicates her task of addressing the root causes of regional migration.

The trip is meant to mark a reset in U.S. attitudes toward Latin America after four years of transactional, militarized migration enforcement under former President Trump.

Rhetorically, Harris’s expressed vision is a polar opposite of the Trump administration’s, when the Department of Homeland Security took an often-criticized lead role in regional diplomacy, forcing so-called “safe third country agreements” on Central American nations.

But political realities at home and abroad could push Harris to end up where Trump’s envoys started: Demanding more immigration enforcement from foreign governments.

President Biden’s approach to Latin American relations is in many ways a return to normalcy, after an exceptional period under Trump.

That’s particularly true of the U.S. relationship with Mexico, where the diplomatic paradigm for decades was a mutual policy of compartmentalization to avoid disagreements in one area spilling over into other areas.

“Trump obviously blew that up, for example mixing migration with punitive tariffs,” said Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador to the United States.

“Whether [Mexican President Andrés Manuel] López Obrador has been told, or briefed, or understands this, Biden and the Biden administration will return to compartmentalizing different issues of the relationship,” Sarukhan added.

López Obrador, a populist who in many ways has broken the mold of his predecessors, has lately taken to launching provocative statements accusing the United States of funding “coup plotters” through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

He’s particularly taken aim at two non-governmental organizations, Article 19, a freedom-of-the-press advocacy group, and Mexicanos Unidos Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad (Mexicans United Against Corruption and Impunity, or MCCI), for receiving funds from the U.S. government.

López Obrador has interchangeably criticized the NGOs and the media for receiving “corn,” a Mexican slang term for bribery, from the U.S. Embassy.

On Wednesday, López Obrador warned the embassy is distributing “corn with weevils” — essentially, a poisoned chalice — in its support for Mexican NGOs.

The Biden administration, however, has remained silent on López Obrador’s provocations, while pushing more aggressively against the leaders of Guatemala and El Salvador, Presidents Alejandro Giammattei and Nayib Bukele, respectively.

While Honduras is also within Harris’s portfolio, there is little to no expectation for the Biden administration to engage with its embattled president, Juan Orlando Hernández, who has been tied to multiple allegations of drug trafficking.

And Harris’s challenge in many ways comes down to how she will deal with the bombastic personalities of López Obrador and Bukele, the whiffs of corruption surrounding Giammattei and the degradation of democratic institutions in the region.

Biden tapped Harris to head up diplomatic engagements with Northern Triangle countries and Mexico with the goal of stemming the flow of migrants at the border in March, at a time when the U.S. experienced the highest number of border apprehensions in 15 years.

The engagement with the Northern Triangle is one of several items on Harris’s growing portfolio in the White House. During a recent trip to Tulsa to mark the 100th anniversary of the race massacre there, Biden announced that she would lead the administration’s efforts to safeguard voting rights, a challenging role that the vice president personally asked to take on giving her history of leadership on the issue.

Harris has also been a key voice on the White House’s efforts to address vaccine hesitancy, particularly among minority Americans. She is expected to lead a tour to promote vaccinations focused on the South in June, as part of the Biden administration’s “month of action” on vaccines.

A White House official said that there is not one issue on Harris’s portfolio that is a priority over others, noting she has a large team in place that can handle them all simultaneously.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Thursday that Biden sees Harris “as a partner and someone who is playing the role of a modern-day vice president, which is taking on challenging tasks, tasks that won’t be easy.”

“And that’s certainly something he felt he did as vice president, and he is confident that Vice President Harris will do exactly the same thing,” Psaki said.

Still, Harris’s growing portfolio means she is not putting all her political eggs in one basket, a smart hedge considering the history of U.S. engagement in Central America.

“At the end of the day the root causes [of regional migration] are extremely complex and there aren’t quick fixes across the board,” said Paola Luisi, director of Families Belong Together, a campaign to fight against family separation.

While Harris is developing a holistic approach to those root causes, the Biden administration is also taking some cues from the Trump team’s management of the issue.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is due in Mexico later this month, with a list of requests for Mexican forces to more rigidly enforce the country’s immigration laws, particularly at airports, according to a Friday report from BuzzFeed.

“I struggle with what a win is down the road. I think that [the trip] is a good first step in the right direction,” added Luisi. “I think there’s a genuine attempt to engage what is an incredibly complex issue in an incredibly complex region.”

Central America has historically been a geopolitical quandary for the United States, but conditions in the region have improved in some aspects since the civil wars of the 1980s.

While flawed, democracy has more or less taken hold in Central America and Mexico, with recent peaceful transfers of power between presidents of opposing political tendencies in Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador.

“Even though the discussion will be on migration, behind the issue of migration are other issues — migration is really the consequence of other issues,” said Gerardo Berthin, director of Latin America and Caribbean Programs at Freedom House.

“Those issues have to do with democratic governance — these governments have not invested in their democracies even if they were doing very well financially,” Berthin added.

Democratic governance and institutions took a hit in part because of the Trump administration’s disinterest in issues other than quelling migration from the region. López Obrador and Giammattei have both made moves widely criticized as attacks on judicial independence.

While Harris has responded to Giammattei — including by hosting Guatemalan dissidents in a White House conversation — the reaction to López Obrador has been more subtle.

The Biden administration Thursday labeled global corruption as a U.S. national security priority, and Harris called López Obrador to inform him Mexico would receive a million Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccines to inoculate people along the border.

“I would probably argue that these two announcements from the White House yesterday are in a certain way a response to President López Obrador, a white glove response,” Sarukhan said.

And Harris will arrive in Mexico a day after the country holds national midterm elections, timing that shows both confidence in the country’s stability and demands a certain serenity in López Obrador’s post-electoral messaging.

But for many observers, political concerns surrounding the trip are secondary, as tens of thousands of Central Americans continue to balance the risks of home versus those of the journey north.

“It’s just lost over and over again the fact that these are families in immediate danger, facing horrific violence, and any family in this situation would just pick up and run,” Luisi said.

Tags Alejandro Mayorkas Donald Trump El Salvador Guatemala Honduras Immigration immigration policy Jen Psaki Joe Biden Mexico Northern Triangle

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