Kamala Harris Confronts Border Crisis Worsened by Regional Feuds
(Bloomberg) -- Vice President Kamala Harris finds herself navigating strained relations with the leaders of Central American countries that have produced a surge of migrants to the U.S., vastly complicating her assignment to curb a growing humanitarian crisis on the southwest border.
Most would-be immigrants are from the so-called Northern Triangle –- Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador -– and their economies are tied to billions of dollars of annual remittances from their citizens working in the U.S.
The difficulties are deeper still: The president of Honduras is accused by U.S. prosecutors of being part of a cocaine trafficking conspiracy, the president of El Salvador refused to see a U.S. envoy and the Guatemalan congress wouldn’t swear in a corruption-fighting judge.
“This is not a situation in which we write a check to governments and let them spend it as they wish,” said Roberta Jacobson, who is leaving her job as the border coordinator for the Biden administration after three months.
Of course, the U.S. is hardly blameless. Over many decades, it’s engaged in whiplash-quality shifts in welcoming and rejecting its southern neighbors, enjoying the benefits of vulnerable low-wage workers at the ready. Previous administrations have backed coup attempts and supported strongmen who carried out abuses against their citizens. Salvadoran gangs originated in Los Angeles prisons; their leaders were deported south where they’ve taken over whole parts of the country, spreading murder and mayhem.
Some 172,000 migrants were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in March, the most in two decades. The problem is both push and pull: residents are driven out by hurricanes, crop failure, crime and corruption; they are drawn to the U.S. by family ties, work and stability in an economy expected to explode with post-pandemic opportunities, and an administration promising more humane treatment after the harsher Donald Trump years.
Although immigration may prove to be the Democrats’ biggest political challenge, Harris has few quick fixes, given the politics on both sides, a reality she acknowledges. At a meeting with foundation leaders last week, she said, “If it were easy, it would have been solved a long time ago.”
On Monday, she meets by video with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei in advance of a visit there and to Mexico in June. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Harris would discuss sending immediate aid to Guatemala and “deepening cooperation on migration.”
Harris plans to hold a call with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador next week after a virtual meeting with Guatemalan community groups on Tuesday.
She hasn’t spoken to –- or announced plans to speak to –- Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele or Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez.
Officials and advisers say Harris will have to figure out a mix of short- and long-term steps, find non-governmental organizations to partner with and use carrots and sticks to fight corruption.
“The governments are going to be part of that but, quite frankly, they’re probably going to be unwilling partners,” said Dan Restrepo, a former Obama White House official who has advised Harris.
The presidencies of El Salvador and Honduras didn’t respond to requests for comment. The Guatemalan presidency said it has an excellent relationship with the U.S., with broad, fluid dialogue and shared concerns over immigration, corruption and sustained development that the two governments will tackle together.
Ricardo Zuniga, the administration’s special envoy to the Northern Triangle, told reporters that the Departments of State and Justice may set up a joint task force to support transparency and civil society while investigating and prosecuting corruption.
The U.S. on Monday sanctioned one former and one current Guatemalan official accused of being involved in corruption.
Here is a snapshot of Harris’s regional partners:
Dealing with Honduras’ government might be the Biden administration’s greatest regional challenge just at a moment when Honduran immigrants are increasing more than those of the other two countries.
U.S. prosecutors allege Honduran President Hernandez participated in a violent cocaine trafficking conspiracy. His brother was sentenced to life in prison for conspiring to smuggle almost 200,000 kg of cocaine into the the U.S. The effort was part of a state-backed trafficking operation that netted the president’s brother nearly $140 million, according to prosecutors.
President Hernandez was also cited in a separate case in the U.S. last month for allegedly participating in cocaine trafficking. He has dismissed the accusations as lies told by convicted criminals seeking to reduce their sentences and said he remains committed to fighting the drug trade.
Hernandez narrowly won a second term in a 2017 election that Organization of American States observers called “low quality” and whose result they refused to confirm. The country will hold a presidential election in November, and Hernandez is not running. That could allow the Biden administration to hold out hope for better leadership, but there’s little optimism that corruption there is a problem with an easy solution.
“The perception of impunity or the perception that people in positions of power can commit acts of corruption without consequence discourages the population and contributes to the sense that there is no future in their countries,” Zuniga told reporters after visiting.
While extremely popular at home, President Bukele has sparked tension with the Biden administration after courting favor with former President Trump. Relations between the two countries is vital -- a quarter of all Salvadorans, more than 2 million, live in the U.S.
Bukele turned down a meeting with Zuniga this month after the White House in February snubbed him during a visit to Washington, a move indicating displeasure with his authoritarian tendencies.
Last year, he led troops into the legislative assembly after lawmakers delayed approval of a $109-million loan and has refused to comply with constitutional court orders. He frequently threatens journalists.
This month Bukele told U.S. Representaive Norma Torres, a Democrat, to buy a pair of glasses and urged voters in California’s 35th district to vote her out of office after she called him a dictator on Twitter.
Eurasia Group analyst Risa Grais-Targow said the Biden administration must find a way to work with Bukele although it won’t be easy.
The Guatemalan government offers perhaps the best opportunity to forge a partnership despite ongoing concerns over corruption.
U.S. and Guatemalan authorities have worked together to crack down on drug traffickers, recently arresting 18 individuals wanted in the U.S. Harris has held a call with President Giammattei with another planned ahead of her trip to see him in person in June.
Recent developments have nonetheless raised red flags. Guatemala’s congress refused to swear in corruption-fighting judge Gloria Porras to the Constitutional Court after an injunction was presented against her. Porras fled to the U.S.
Giammattei’s chief of staff Leyla Susana Lemus was sworn in to the top court, drawing concern from Washington and his own vice president.
Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council’s top Western Hemisphere official, said the upheaval surrounding the court is worrying and that using legal institutions to protect criminals “sends a bad signal.”
“The situation in these countries hasn’t changed,” said Jose Luis Gonzalez, coordinator of the Guatemala Red Jesuita con Migrantes, a non-governmental organization. “As long as we have the same economic, political and social situation with violence, corruption and impunity, people will continue to leave.”
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