GUATEMALA CITY — Vice President Kamala Harris announced a number of new steps Monday aimed at addressing the root causes of migration in the Northern Triangle region during a joint news conference with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, including new task forces on boosting anti-corruption efforts and ending human trafficking.
Speaking from Patio de la Paz in the heart of Guatemala City, Harris said that the Treasury, State and Justice Departments would work together to train local law enforcement and support Guatemalan prosecutors in anti-corruption efforts.
And she offered perhaps her most direct warning yet to prospective migrants: “As one of our priorities, we will discourage illegal migration. And I believe if you come to our border you will be turned back."
"Do not come. Do not come. The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border," she added.
The two leaders, standing on a stage surrounded by blue and white flowers, the colors of the Guatemalan national flag, appeared at times to deliver messages at odds with each other.
While Harris stressed that tackling corruption in Guatemala was a top priority for the U.S. strategy in the region, Giammattei pushed back on reporters’ questions about corruption accusations against him and insisted that his nation's judiciary was independent from political influences.
“The social networks carry misinformation,” Giammattei said. “How many cases of corruption have I been accused [of]? Zero.”
Despite Harris’ stark warning, she said she and Giammattei shared a “fundamental belief that most people don’t want to leave home” and felt that part of their mission was to restore a “sense of hope” in the country so that people would not want to migrate.
People leave, Harris said, when they are fleeing harm or feel they cannot provide for their family.“The president and I share a firm belief that our responsibility and our capacity is to give people a sense of hope,” Harris said. “Most people don’t want to leave where their grandmother lives.”
The news conference followed an in-person bilateral meeting between the two leaders Monday morning, as Harris began her first foreign trip since taking office and her highest-profile move yet leading the administration’s efforts to address the root causes of migration in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries, which include Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Harris described her conversation with Giammattei as “frank” and “candida” and said that when it came to matters of judicial independence and government and corporate corruption the leaders did not “have time for glossing over concerns.”
Harris also announced that the U.S. would provide 500,000 coronavirus vaccines to Guatemala and would launch a young women’s empowerment initiative to help promote economic opportunity in the region. Harris said she would also continue to engage with private companies to help draw investments to the area as well.
Giammattei said they discussed a center for “returned migrants” that would be in western part of the country and would help control the flow of people, and also discussed working together on a family reunification program. He also talked about legal pathways for migration, including H2 visas.
Harris’s emphasis Monday on corruption is likely to be welcomed by policy experts in the region who have warned of the limitations of financial aid to address the causes of migration and have called for a greater focus on government corruption, which affects everything from human rights and economic conditions.
The White House has in recent weeks highlighted the need to tackle corruption, signaling that a focus on strengthening democratic institutions will play a key role in the administration’s foreign policy approach. Secretary of State Antony Blinken voiced concerns about corruption and the health of democracy during a trip to Central America last week, and on Thursday the White House announced new anti-corruption efforts as part of its national security agenda.
But it is unclear how the Biden administration’s new anti-corruption commission in Guatemala would differ from similar efforts under the Bush and Obama administrations or how the U.S. can count on the Guatemalan government to be a reliable partner in the region on anti-corruption efforts
Guatemala was criticized in 2019 for preventing a similar international anti-corruption commission from operating in the country and it has come under more recent scrutiny for harassing those tied to the commission.
President Joe Biden tasked Harris with addressing the root causes of migration in March as the administration faced growing political pressure to address a surge in undocumented migrant children unaccompanied by parents arriving at the U.S. border seeking asylum. Guatemala sends more unaccompanied minors to the U.S. border than any other nation, according to data from Customs and Border Protection.
Republicans quickly seized on the opportunity to tie Harris to the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border, leading some Democrats to worry that the role could be politically perilous for her, especially if she hopes to run a second time for president.
Following the news conference, Harris was expected to meet with female Guatemalan entrepreneurs. She was scheduled to later travel to Mexico City to meet with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Tuesday, a meeting that presents its own unique set of diplomatic challenges.
López Obrador has been criticized for attacking the free press and government watchdog groups. He has also strongly condemned the U.S. government for giving funding to nongovernmental groups in Mexico that fight corruption and are critical of his administration, accusing the U.S. of “an act of interventionism that violates our sovereignty.”
Harris does not have plans to visit Honduras or El Salvador — the other two Northern Triangle countries — and has yet to hold meaningful engagements with their leaders, both of whom are entangled in extensive corruption scandals.
Minutes after taking off from the Washington area Sunday, Harris was forced to return to Joint Base Andrews because of a mechanical issue with Air Force Two. She switched planes before taking off for a second time for Central America.
Nancy McEldowney, Harris’ national security adviser, told reporters Sunday that Harris was “here as part of this administration’s overall effort to restore American leadership around the world.”