Miami Herald (Sunday)

‘Little room for error’: Harris faces first foreign test as VP in Mexico, Guatemala

- BY FRANCESCA CHAMBERS fchambers@mcclatchyd­c.com

WASHINGTON

Vice President Kamala Harris is set to make her debut on the world stage this weekend in Central America, a high-stakes trip that will test her diplomatic skills as she seeks to address a migrant border issue that the administra­tion has struggled with.

Harris’ meetings with government leaders in Mexico and Guatemala come just over two months after President Joe Biden tasked her with improving the quality of life in Northern Triangle countries — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — where nationals are fleeing to the U.S. at heightened levels with the expectatio­n they will not be turned away.

She has consulted an array of Latin American experts and groups that work with countries in preparatio­n for her first foreign trip as vice president, one that will set the tone for the Biden administra­tion’s relationsh­ip with neighborin­g countries after a previously tumultuous four years.

“There’s little room for error, and there’s maximum exposure,” said Brett Bruen, a former U.S. diplomat who was director of Global Engagement at the White House under former President Barack Obama. “It’s not like traveling overseas as a senator, you are under a much brighter lens.”

Harris’ previous foreign experience is limited. She made two trips abroad as a U.S. senator to meet with troops in Iraq and Afghanista­n and traveled to Mexico as attorney general of California to discuss transnatio­nal crime. She is slated to arrive in Guatemala on Sunday and fly to Mexico on Monday to meet with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Experts on the region said they view Harris’ trip as a positive step toward resetting relations with countries whose government­s have felt ignored or misunderst­ood by previous administra­tions.

Former President Donald Trump never traveled to Central or South America during his tenure and suspended aid to the home countries of many migrants. He routinely insulted the nations’ government­s and made a crude remark to lawmakers about countries like El Salvador.

Growing political problems in El Salvador and Honduras, two countries that Harris is not visiting on this trip, have also created new challenges for the Biden administra­tion in the region, experts said.

“She’s diving right into the deep end, because it is a really challengin­g set of circumstan­ces,” said Jenna Ben-Yehuda, the Truman National Security Project’s president and CEO. “It’s not as though she’s heading off to Canada for her first trip or to Western Europe. She’s really right into the frying pan here.”

Migration at the U.S.Mexico border reached an elevated level even before the warmer months when unauthoriz­ed crossings typically spike, U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows. The increase began in the final months of the Trump administra­tion, coinciding with two hurricanes that hit Central America, and have continued to rise each month since.

Republican­s blame Biden’s immigratio­n policies for the influx. Biden administra­tion officials have stated that the border is not open during the pandemic, except to unaccompan­ied children. But Republican­s say Biden’s terminatio­n of a Trump-era policy that required asylum seekers to remain in Mexico until their court dates contribute­d to the increase in migrant arrivals since he took office.

“Vice President Harris has to go down to those countries and tell them to strengthen their rule of law, even as the Biden administra­tion is underminin­g rule of law on our southern border,” said James Roberts, a research fellow at the conservati­ve Heritage Foundation and a former foreign service officer.

Harris’ advisers told reporters during a briefing that the goal of her meetings is to deepen relationsh­ips with host nation government­s and community leaders and to engage with innovators and entreprene­urs about ways to increase economic opportunit­y in the countries.

Discussion­s are also expected to take place about corruption, climate change, poverty, violence, COVID-19 cooperatio­n, the rule of law and other issues the Biden administra­tion views as drivers of migration.

“It’s going to be an honest and real conversati­on,” Harris said of her meeting with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei in remarks to reporters. “I’m there to listen as much as I am to share perspectiv­e.”

Biden has pledged to send Northern Triangle countries $4 billion in assistance, and Harris announced in April that the administra­tion would send those nations $310 million in disaster relief aid that is intended to help with food shortages and protection for refugees. The U.S. said this week that it would also send approximat­ely 6 million vaccine doses to South and Central American countries, including Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. It has already shared nearly 4 million vaccine doses with Mexico.

Critics of the Biden administra­tion say the nations’ challenges will not be solved with more monetary assistance.

John Bolton, who was national security advisor to Trump when the former president froze aid to Central American countries, said the Biden administra­tion needs to make clear to migrants that undesirabl­e economic conditions are not covered by refugee law.

“They’re going to say, well I may not like it here in San Salvador, but I sure as hell don’t need the exercise of walking to Mexican border and walking back again. That’s the point,” Bolton said. “It has nothing to do with foreign aid, and if they go that route, there’s really no limit to the money they can pour into those three countries.”

Mazin Alfaqih, a special advisor to Harris for the Northern Triangle, told reporters that the administra­tion wants to broaden its partnershi­ps with businesses and multilater­al organizati­ons.

“[T]he U.S. government and foreign assistance alone cannot tackle this problem,” Alfaqih said. “There needs to be political will on the part of the government.”

Harris is largely picking up where Biden left off as vice president when he was in charge of the diplomatic efforts to reduce migration from the region.

Her visit to Central America is aimed primarily at establishi­ng cooperativ­e agreements with those nations in the short term to meet their immediate food and safety needs and direct prospectiv­e migrants to alternativ­e avenues of work in their home countries or elsewhere, said Earl Wayne, a public policy fellow at the Wilson Center who served as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico during Obama’s presidency.

Over the longer term, Wayne said migrants are more likely to stay in their home countries if they have the prospect of additional training, better work and improved safety, which local groups and businesses that Harris is meeting on her trip can help with.

“One of the problems … is that the United States has not been consistent in the strategy that it’s using or the tools that it’s using,” Wayne said.

Noah Gottschalk, who is global policy lead at Oxfam America, a nonprofit group that Harris has consulted, said it is also important to recognize that Central American migration to the U.S. will never completely stop. He said families will continue to seek to avoid political persecutio­n and reunify with loved ones, and because of the safety and economic opportunit­y that the country provides, the U.S. will always be an attractive destinatio­n for migrants.

“Leaving home really is your last resort,” Gottschalk said. “So what we want is to make forced migration as rare as we possibly can by addressing all the reasons that people have to leave, because it’s a tremendous disruption to people’s lives, to communitie­s, to the country itself, people don’t want to have to leave.”

 ?? ANDREW HARNIK AP ?? Vice President Kamala Harris meets with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on May 21.
ANDREW HARNIK AP Vice President Kamala Harris meets with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on May 21.

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