Harris ‘root causes’ immigration plan faces challenges

Vice President Harris’s “root causes” initiative for stemming Northern Triangle migration to the United States is facing serious headwinds before it takes off as governments in Mexico and Guatemala split with the Biden administration on key policy issues.

Harris earlier this week unveiled an 18-page plan for slowing the tide of migrants that promises long-term investments in the region’s development.

One of the key components is a project to reduce migration from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — the so-called Northern Triangle countries — by investing nearly $4 billion over four years to improve living conditions in those countries.

“In Central America, the root causes of migration run deep—and migration from the region has a direct impact on the United States,” Harris said in a statement on the strategy.

“For that reason, our nation must consistently engage with the region to address the hardships that cause people to leave Central America and come to our border,” she added.

The approach, a 180-degree shift from former President Trump’s regional policy of demanding local migration enforcement under threat of economic sanctions, initially drew praise from immigration advocates.

Yet the plan is running into resistance with both Mexico and Guatemala, the United States’ most willing partners in the effort.

Mexico is a key player in regional migration, as both a source country for migrants and a transit country for Central American migrants.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has openly antagonized the Biden administration, at times accusing the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) of funding “coup plotters” against him or spouting Cold War-era rhetoric on U.S.-Cuba relations.

While López Obrador’s rhetoric has been ostensibly directed at his domestic audience, it has signaled a cooling of relations between Mexico and the United States.

And Mexico, once seen as a gateway to the rest of Latin America, has little to offer in terms of helping the United States implement its agenda in Central America.

Guatemala has emerged as the key country for implementation of the root causes initiative, as the Central American beachhead for the U.S. effort. Harris’s visit to Guatemala and Mexico signaled their importance to the U.S. strategy, and her absence from Honduras and El Salvador carried equally loud messages.

Biden administration officials have all but written off direct collaboration with the governments of Honduras and El Salvador, the former because of credible allegations of President Juan Orlando Hernández’s active participation in the drug trade, and the latter because of tensions over President Nayib Bukele’s apparent flirtations with authoritarianism.

The lack of government interlocutors in the region has left Biden administration officials little choice but to deal with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, a politician without the deficiencies of his nearest neighbors but one whose power structure has historically been propped up by rampant corruption.

“I think that the United States has not fully understood the nature of criminal structures in Guatemala, nor the webs of corruption,” said Iván Velásquez, the Colombian magistrate and diplomat who from 2013 to 2019 led the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala. 

The Biden administration’s strategy emphasizes support for the region’s considerable civil society structures, a novelty that many observers say compares well to previous attempts to assist the region’s development.

“Success ultimately in this region will require the leaders of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to govern in a transparent, accountable, and inclusive manner. So our assistance can be catalytic, it can, in some cases galvanize political will, but it will not replace the responsibilities that Central American governments have to their own people,” said USAID Northern Triangle Task Force Executive Director Michael Camilleri on a call with reporters Thursday.

Still, shaky relations with existing power structures have added a level of difficulty to an already daunting task.

Some have called into question how the U.S. can progress with the strategy — stemming migration being a daunting task in and of itself — without getting more buy-in from politically fraught leaders.

“There’s a lot of skepticism about working directly with governments in the region, for obvious reasons,” said Lester Munson, who served as deputy assistant administrator at USAID during the Bush administration and is a co-chair of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network.

“There’s not a lot of great, successful programs that can work around that. So how do you engage directly with those governments, and have them be accountable for the things that are happening on the ground, and still operate programs that are effective? You kind of need the buy-in of the local government at a certain point. It’s very difficult to do it without it. We don’t have great partners down there. There are not a lot of easy answers here. These are really tough questions.”

Still, the administration has few choices but to engage in the region, both on the migration front and from a geopolitical perspective.

“Russia and China have interests in the region. To the extent that there are differences with the United States, they will have greater possibilities to intervene,” said Velásquez.

Russia has made inroads already with Nicaragua, a regional U.S. foe, and has actively engaged in vaccine diplomacy with Giammattei’s Guatemala.

Stephen McFarland, a former U.S. ambassador to Guatemala under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, wrote that the recent firing of anti-graft prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval is a sign that the president feels his flirtations with other powers afford him leverage in the bilateral relationship with the United States.

“The firing is also a symptom of a bigger challenge to the United States in Central America post 9/11: a perception that the United States is a paper tiger, that it can be played off against China or Russia, that it is not sufficiently bold, focused and nimble enough to use its law enforcement, economic, development and diplomatic advantages to attain its objectives,” wrote McFarland.

The firing led the Biden administration to limit its cooperation with the Guatemalan attorney general’s office and set off street protests on Thursday that continued into Friday, calling for Giammattei’s resignation.

McFarland, writing in a university-funded Guatemalan outlet, lambasted Giammattei’s government and its potential to collaborate with the United States.

“This is not a partner government that needs training, cooperation or a little nudging to counter corruption; it has chosen the corruption status quo over its relationship with the United States,” he wrote. 

Tags Barack Obama Border crisis Donald Trump El Salvador Guatemala Honduras Immigration Mexico Root Causes
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