Harris Finds Political Risk on Migration-Diplomacy Tour
(Bloomberg) -- The enormity of Vice President Kamala Harris’s task to curb migration from Central America became clear during a two-day visit to Guatemala and Mexico, where her modest offerings of U.S. aid were overshadowed by political attacks from Washington.
Harris left the region on Tuesday with promises from the leaders of the two countries to step up economic development and reduce the incentive for migrants to leave.
Yet criticism of Harris stole attention from the deals, with Republicans faulting her for traveling abroad before visiting the U.S.-Mexico border and one of her own party’s most prominent liberals, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, chastising her for warning migrants not to trek to the U.S.
Harris tersely dismissed the GOP attacks in an interview with NBC News on Monday before promising on Tuesday that she would eventually visit the border -- without giving a date. She told reporters the administration must address “long-standing” root causes of mass migration, which won’t be solved “in one trip that took two days.”
The vice president declared her first foreign trip a “success,” pointing to several agreements reached with Mexico and Guatemala, while delivering a defense of her decision to first travel to Central America to address the migration issue.
“I have no question in my mind that the work that we have done -- including the agreements that I have announced today, much less what will come of those agreements in terms of the work ahead -- is going to have a very positive impact,” Harris said at a news conference in Mexico City to conclude her trip. “It may not be evidenced overnight, but it will have a positive impact.”
The trip produced several incremental advances on her months of diplomatic engagement with leaders and activists in Latin America.
The U.S. and Mexico agreed to strengthen their development agencies’ collaboration on aid to Central American countries. In Guatemala, she secured an agreement to bolster security at that country’s northern and southern borders. The administration announced a pair of task forces during the trip, one targeting regional corruption and the other intended to combat smuggling and trafficking.
In Guatemala, Harris announced $88 million in assistance to Central America to support women’s empowerment and economic initiatives. She said the U.S. would also aim to attract $250 million in investment and sales in southern Mexico and provide $130 million to assist Mexico in implementing a new labor law.
That follows $310 million in humanitarian aid for Central America that Harris announced in April. President Joe Biden has urged Congress to approve a $4 billion aid program for the region over the next four years.
But Harris did not unveil the White House’s comprehensive strategy for the region during the trip. Harris wanted to use the trip to gather information before signing off on the plan, according to a senior administration official. The White House has not yet set a date to release the strategy.
The trip also underscored the U.S.’s frayed relationships in the region. Harris traveled to just one of the three countries of what’s known as the Northern Triangle, the source of the recent surge in migration. The leaders of the other two -- El Salvador and Honduras -- have clashed with the Biden administration, though Ricardo Zuniga, the U.S. envoy to the region, is in regular conversations with officials there.
Harris and her advisers were acutely aware that on Sunday evening she became the first female vice president to step foot on foreign soil. She made a point of meeting with women entrepreneurs in both countries, telling them she plans to tell their stories once she returns home.
“I welcome showing anyone, whatever your race or gender, that you may be the first to do anything -- but make sure you’re not the last,” she said at a news conference in Guatemala City.
Her trip was tightly scheduled and left little time for casual interactions or sightseeing. But in both countries she visited, her motorcade passed by buildings housing their highest courts. “It gives you a sense of the significance of the rule of law,” she said in Guatemala, which she was visiting for the first time.
In Mexico, Harris broke with her schedule briefly to pull aside President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador for a one-on-one discussion without staff before their formal meeting, a move that the senior administration official said was designed to build rapport. The conversation lasted 30 minutes and included talk about historic tensions in the U.S.-Mexico relationship, the official said.
At Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, Harris expressed relief that she was able to meet with a group of community leaders, including Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu, in person after previously hearing from them in a virtual meeting. She visited a classroom where three female engineering students showed off their projects and expressed both frustration and hope about being young women in the field.
“The strength and the beauty of their work is these young leaders and what we all know is possible, which is they have the ability to see what can be unburdened by what has been,” she said afterward.
In a meeting later with women entrepreneurs who’d built agriculture-related businesses with the help of U.S. foreign aid, Harris was most eager to hear from a woman named Yuri with a chocolate business. “I like chocolate,” Harris joked. Some of the women spoke to her in Spanish and others in indigenous languages.
Harris and her advisers regard the media attention on a border visit as influenced by Republican talking points. Her assignment from Biden was always focused on addressing the causes of migration -- essentially an economic and diplomatic problem best addressed with the countries of Central America’s Northern Triangle and Mexico, not on a tour of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.
Harris has plenty of experience at the border, her aides say, including multiple visits as a U.S. senator from California and as state attorney general, and she is regularly briefed on border conditions by administration officials.
Harris’s frustrations with the dynamic were visible in the NBC interview. After she was asked for the third time about visiting the border, she retorted, “And I haven’t been to Europe. And I mean, I don’t understand the point that you’re making. I’m not discounting the importance of the border.”
The vice president gave a fuller explanation to reporters on Tuesday, saying her diplomatic efforts in Central America are vital to prevent migrants from making the journey to the U.S. in the first place.
“I want to be very clear that the problem at the border in large part, if not entirely, stems from the problems in these countries,” Harris said in her Mexico City news conference.
But Republicans took advantage of the trip -- and its dearth of major announcements -- to ramp up criticism of Harris, whom they have scapegoated for the increase in migration at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“The only thing Vice President Kamala Harris managed to achieve in the last 3 days was avoid actually dealing with the worsening crisis at America’s border,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted on Tuesday.
Customs and Border Protection data show that recent law enforcement encounters with Central American migrants and the number of migrant children in U.S. custody have declined slightly since peaking in March.
Harris’s team was meanwhile caught off-guard by the criticism from Ocasio-Cortez and human-rights groups like Refugees International after she told Central American migrants, “don’t come.” Her advisers pointed out that she and other administration officials had made similar comments since November’s election.
“This is not just about the vice president,” Ocasio-Cortez said in an MSNBC interview on Tuesday. “This is about the Biden administration’s immigration policy writ large is not working. It’s wrong and it’s inhumane.”
The outcome showed there are few political upsides for Harris in the near term as Biden’s point person on migration from Central America, which has bedeviled the last three American presidents.
The administration strategy of improving conditions in the region could take months or years to produce results, while historic numbers of migrant apprehensions -- including of lone children and teenagers -- continue at the U.S.-Mexico border. That may expose Biden and Harris to further criticism from Republicans before next year’s midterm elections.
Since the beginning of the year, U.S. authorities have apprehended or denied entry to more than 200,000 Central American at the southern border, expelling many of them to Mexico. More than 16,200 children who entered the U.S. unaccompanied by parents or guardians were in shelters supervised by the Department of Health and Human Services as of Monday. An average of 340 have been apprehended daily in the last 30 days.
Harris has attempted to temper expectations of Democrats and immigrant-rights advocates who want the White House to move faster to roll back former President Donald Trump’s hard-line immigration policies. The vice president signaled the administration is pursuing a middle ground of maintaining a hardened border posture, even if it results in turning away many asylum-seekers she has promised the government is committed to helping in the future.
While she was out of the country, trouble erupted on another front for Harris: expanding voting rights, an issue Biden has assigned her to shepherd through Congress.
Democratic Senator Joe Manchin announced his opposition to one of two voting-rights bills the administration has backed, adding that he also would never support changing Senate filibuster rules so that Democrats can pass the legislation with just 51 votes instead of 60.
It’s a tough position for Harris, who has future White House ambitions of her own. Failures on both immigration and voting rights could become a vulnerability should she decide to run for president.
“As with any intractable issue, we cannot be simplistic and assume that there is only one element or one way of approaching the overall problem,” Harris said of migration. “If this were easy, it would have been handled a long time ago.”
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