GUATEMALA CITY – Vice President Kamala Harris offered an optimistic outlook for improved cooperation with Guatemala on addressing the spike in migration to the U.S. after her meeting with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei on Monday. She also delivered a direct warning to migrants considering making the trek: “Do not come. Do not come.”
Her comments, during a press conference after she met privately with Giammattei, underscored the challenge that remains even as Harris engages in substantive talks with the Guatemalan and Mexican presidents during a three-day visit to the region this week, her first foreign trip as vice president.
“I want to emphasize that the goal of our work is to help Guatemalans find hope at home," Harris said. “At the same time, I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: Do not come, do not come.”
In conjunction with Harris' trip, the Biden administration announced that the Justice Department would create an anti-corruption task force and an additional task force to combat human trafficking and drug smuggling in the region. Harris also promised a new program focused on creating education and economic opportunities for girls there, among other new initiatives. And she told Giammattei that her goal in the region was to restore “hope” to residents so they no longer felt the need to flee their homeland for better opportunities in the U.S.
But for all the talk about new ways to cooperate, reining in corruption and improving living conditions in the region have been long-running challenges that previous administrations have been unable to achieve in their efforts to stem the tide of migration to the United States.
Part of the challenge remains that, despite the best efforts of U.S. officials, corruption underpins many of the region’s governments. Indeed, Giammattei himself has faced criticism over his handling of the issue.
Last month, two lawyers who are outspoken critics of Giammattei’s administration were arrested on what they say were trumped-up charges aimed at silencing them.
And the selection of judges for Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, its highest, was mired in influence peddling and allegations of corruption. Giammattei picked his chief of staff to fill one of the five vacancies. When Gloria Porras, a respected force against corruption, was elected to a second term, the congress controlled by Giammattei’s party refused to seat her.
On Monday, Giammattei seemed less than eager to address those issues.
Asked by The Associated Press about criticism of his record on corruption, Giammattei initially ignored the question. When pressed by another journalist to answer for the complaints against him, Giammattei seemed to bristle at the allegation that he was at fault, insisting there were “zero” allegations of corruption against him and labeling drug traffickers the biggest corruption issue in his nation.
Still, Harris expressed optimism about their ability to work together, telling reporters that the two had a “very frank and very candid” conversation that included “the importance of anti-corruption and the importance of an independent judiciary.”
Harris said the Justice, Treasury and State departments would work together on anti-corruption investigations and train local law enforcement to conduct their own.
“We are creating this task force to address corruption. We are working on a task force that is about human smuggling. We are doing the work of requiring certain progress be made if we are going to attract U.S. investment, private investment, to this region,” Harris said.
Giammattei said that the U.S. and Guatemala also agreed to collaborate on a “very simple process” through visas to allow for regular migration to the U.S., and that the two countries would work to prioritize family reunifications.
The White House also announced a $7.5 million commitment through USAID to support entrepreneurs and innovators in Guatemala, as well as millions more in investments in affordable housing, agribusinesses and loans to small businesses in the country.
Besides her meeting with Giammattei, Harris participated in a roundtable with Guatemalan community and civil society leaders and met with young female engineers and entrepreneurs.
In addressing the root causes of migration, Harris has laid out an approach centered on creating better opportunities and living conditions in the region through humanitarian and economic aid.
Harris had previously announced plans to send $310 million to provide support for refugees and address food shortages, and she recently secured commitments from a dozen companies and organizations to invest in the Northern Triangle countries to promote economic opportunity and job training.
Washington won some goodwill through its vaccine diplomacy this past week. Giammattei and Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador both received calls from Harris on Thursday telling them the U.S. would be sending 500,000 doses and 1 million doses, respectively, of COVID-19 vaccine.
While in Latin America, Harris is also navigating the politics of immigration. Congressional Republicans have criticized both President Joe Biden and Harris for not visiting the U.S.-Mexico border and contend the administration is ignoring what they say is a crisis there. April was the second-busiest month on record for unaccompanied children encountered at the border, following March’s all-time high. The Border Patrol’s total encounters in April were up 3% from March, marking the highest level since April 2000.
On Monday, Harris defended her decision not to visit the border, telling reporters she was focused on addressing the root causes of migration in a way that delivers “tangible” results “as opposed to grand gestures.”
But even as Harris made the case for reforms in the nation’s capital, those very migrants she hoped to help were still streaming to the nation’s borders.
On Monday, Henry Armando Rodríguez, 27, from El Paraiso in south-central Honduras, rested outside the migrant shelter in Tecun Uman at the Guatemala-Mexico border on his journey toward the United States. He didn’t know about Harris’ visit but described reasons for leaving that touched on the hopelessness the vice president wants to address.
“Life is very bad in Honduras right now,” he said.
It was his first time attempting to migrate, he said. He decided to make the journey because it was impossible to find any agricultural work because of droughts at home.
When he was able to find work, he couldn’t make enough money to pay for a decent home. He said that, because of poverty in Honduras, “we have to flee from there to be able to look for new opportunities.” And he wasn’t impressed with the politicians who he says only claim to want to help when they’re fishing for votes around election season.
“They promise you the sun and the moon, and then in the end they forgot all of that,” he said. “What interests them is only themselves, how they live, and the life of the poor is of little importance to them.”
Associated Press writers Christopher Sherman in Mexico City, Sonia Pérez D. in Guatemala City, Santiago Billy in Tecun Uman, Guatemala, and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.