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Kamala Harris' Guatemala trip displayed our refusal to accept any guilt for the region's woes

"Do not come," she told potential asylum seekers before laughing off having never visited the border. So much for new beginnings with a new administration.
Image: Kamala Harris
Vice President Kamala Harris removes her translation device during a news conference with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei on Monday at the National Palace in Guatemala City.Jacquelyn Martin / AP

Vice President Kamala Harris made her first foreign visit to Guatemala and Mexico this week to address the "root causes" of Central American migration to the United States. But, ignoring the intimate role the United States played in developing those root causes, she brusquely told desperate Guatemalans "do not come" to the U.S. and dismissed any controversy over her not visiting America's southern border by saying she hadn’t been to Europe yet either.

Thus, the daughter of immigrants and the first woman of color to serve as vice president of the United States left zero doubt that she was not the new hope Central Americans had wished she would be.

Harris delivered this “new era” immigration language — which goes against asylum law and President Joe Biden’s promise to both restore the asylum-processing system at our border and bring about long-overdue immigration reform — with as much compassion as the "I really don’t care. Do U?" jacket that former first lady Melania Trump wore on her ride to visit migrant children in a detention camp.

“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,” Harris said during a press conference with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei.

“I believe if you come to our border, you will be turned back,” she said.

Her bad-cop warning to potential migrants went down like a lead balloon in the region and fueled criticism from within her own party back home.

Biden ostensibly sent Harris to “lead our efforts with Mexico and the Northern Triangle and the countries that help — are going to need help in stemming the movement of so many folks, stemming the migration to our southern border.” He said she was "the most qualified person to do it."

But after this trip, it's clear she is not: Her bad-cop warning to potential migrants went down like a lead balloon in the region and fueled criticism from within her own party back home.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., for instance, called Harris' statement "disappointing."

“First, seeking asylum at any US border is a 100% legal method of arrival,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter. “Second, the US spent decades contributing to regime change and destabilization in Latin America. We can’t help set someone’s house on fire and then blame them for fleeing.”

The hope had been that Harris would bring a different and more human approach to U.S. immigration policy. But even just her flippant response to the question of why she hadn't yet visited our border left her looking like the inept immigration czar the right paints her out to be.

When asked by NBC News' Lester Holt if she was going to visit the border, Harris replied, “This whole thing about the border, we’ve been to the border. We’ve been to the border.”

When Holt corrected her that she hadn't been to the border, she laughed. "And I haven’t been to Europe. I don’t understand the point you’re making."

But the rest of us did.

El Salvador, however, is really America’s forgotten war. As a direct result of it, approximately 2.1 million Salvadoran immigrants and their children live in the U.S.

Watching Harris sent me back more than 30 years, when I first arrived in El Salvador — a country that then-President Ronald Reagan called a model democracy — as the United Press International’s Salvador bureau chief. Walking through the airport, I passed posters of children with crutches or prosthetic limbs, victims of the landmines supplied to the Salvadoran military by the United States, watched over by heavily armed soldiers. I knew the phrase "model democracy" was a lie.

Central America was then in turmoil: The socialist Sandinistas had come to power in 1979 in neighboring Nicaragua, and a similarly aligned powerful guerrilla movement in El Salvador was gaining ground. Still smarting from the U.S. failure to defeat the Chinese-backed Communist forces in Vietnam, Reagan decided El Salvador was the place to finally stop communism in its tracks. (A popular 1980s sticker reading “El Salvador is Spanish for Vietnam” painted an accurate picture of the U.S. policy in the region.)

The Reagan administration financed the Salvadoran military’s bloody war against the guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Army — but the real victims (and often the main targets) in that war were and still are the Salvadoran people. More than 75,000 Salvadorans died or "disappeared" in the war.

El Salvador, however, is really America’s forgotten war. As a direct result of it, approximately 2.1 million Salvadoran immigrants and their children — both first and second generation — live in the U.S. And El Salvador is the largest source of immigration to the U.S. from Central America, in part because the atrocities there and throughout the region still continue.

Harris, however, went in ignoring all of our history and didn’t cover herself in glory even touching on the problems of today.

So it is deeply disturbing to see Harris — who portrayed herself as a committed advocate to migrant rights while she was in the U.S. Senate — now using the caustic language of deterrence as a member of the executive branch.

While decades of poverty, corruption, war and dictatorship — an inevitable result of Washington’s at-the-barrel-of-a-gun interference in regional politics — would make any visit by a member of a new Democratic administration something of a poison chalice, there is still a lot of history there for which the U.S. should apologize. Harris, however, went in ignoring all of it and didn’t cover herself in glory even touching on the problems of today.

More than 178,000 migrants — mostly from the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and including an increasingly large number of unaccompanied minors and teenagers — arrived at the southern border in April. It was the highest number in a single month in two decades, and it gave the Biden administration a problem it needs to solve. The situation got so politically touchy for the new president that Biden was forced to pivot — such a Washington term — from his campaign promises of a more humanitarian approach at the border and instead rely on an emergency rule put in place by President Donald Trump that allows border agents to immediately turn away migrants without giving them a chance to apply for asylum.

Still, Biden has pledged almost $4 billion to fight the “root causes” of migration. And during her visit, Harris said over the next three years the U.S. would invest $40 million in a program for young, primarily Indigenous women in Guatemala through USAID, which in turn would allocate an additional $48 million for affordable housing and agribusiness in the country. She also said the U.S. will assist an anti-corruption panel in Guatemala, with Giammattei (who has denounced the panel) standing next to her.

All of these strategies have been used in the past. Yet the problems in these countries that cause mass migration still exist, migration hasn’t been stemmed and none have addressed the root cause: the failed U.S. foreign policy in the region and Washington’s unwillingness to own up to it.

If Harris went in looking for “root causes,” she missed the elephant in the room by not looking in the mirror.

At the end of her three-day visit, reporters asked Harris how she felt about her trip.

"Do I declare this trip a success?" she said. "Yes, I do."