Harris Tells Guatemalans Don’t Come, Urges Corruption Fight

Vice President Kamala Harris warned Central Americans not to migrate to the U.S. and said the Biden administration would intensify efforts to combat corruption in the region, after meeting with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei on Monday.

“Do not come. Do not come,” Harris said at a news conference in Guatemala City. “If you come to our border, you will be turned back.”

Harris’s trip is part of the administration’s effort to address the so-called root causes of migration from Central America, after more than 200,000 attempts by migrants from the region to enter the U.S. since the start of the year. President Joe Biden directed Harris to lead the effort to stem the surge in migration.

But on Monday night, Harris defended herself from criticism by a prominent fellow Democrat -- Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez of New York -- over her warning to migrants not to seek refuge. Ocasio-Cortez said on Twitter that the remark was “disappointing to see.” Some human rights groups also expressed dismay.

“I’m really clear: we have to deal with the root causes, and that is my focus. Period,” Harris told reporters before departing for Mexico.

A spokeswoman for the vice president, Symone Sanders, later added via email that Biden and Harris “have been clear in dissuading people from making the dangerous and treacherous journey to the U.S./Mexico border.”

“We encourage those who do want to come to the U.S. to do so legally and seek legal immigration options in their home countries,” Sanders said, adding that Harris “is committed to addressing the root causes of migration, which also addresses why migrants are coming to our border.”

Earlier Monday, Harris and Giammattei had a “very frank and very candid” conversation that included “the importance of anti-corruption and the importance of an independent judiciary,” she said. In April, the country’s legislature -- controlled by Giammattei’s party -- refused to seat an anti-corruption judge, Gloria Porras, a move criticized by U.S. officials.

Giammattei said at the news conference that there are “zero” allegations of corruption against him.

The Justice Department on Monday announced new steps to combat human trafficking to coincide with Harris’s visit, including a joint U.S. law enforcement task force and additional assistance to Central American governments to address the problem in their own countries. The department is also stepping up its efforts on investigations, prosecutions and asset recoveries of corruption in the Northern Triangle countries and heading a new joint task force with the Treasury and State Departments to investigate and prosecute cases with links to the U.S.

“Corruption does not know borders,” Harris said. “We have to follow the money and we have to stop it.”

The U.S. will also provide $40 million to fund an initiative to provide economic opportunity for and curb gender-based violence against young women, according to the White House. An additional $48 million will go toward entrepreneurship, housing, agribusiness and micro-lending programs.

The new announcements follow $310 million in humanitarian aid for Central America that Harris unveiled in April. Biden has pushed for a $4 billion aid program for the region over the next four years.

U.S. and regional leaders must “give the people a sense of hope that help is on the way and to then follow through, understanding that hope does not exist by itself,” Harris said earlier as her meeting with Giammattei began. “It must be coupled with relationships and trust. It must be coupled with tangible outcomes, in terms of what we do as leaders to convince people that there is a reason to be hopeful about their future and the future of their children.”

Harris Tells Guatemalans Don’t Come, Urges Corruption Fight

Underscoring one of Harris’s challenges, the aid amounts to only a fraction of the remittances Guatemalans receive from the U.S. Last year, the $11.4 billion sent to Guatemalans from individuals outside the country made up nearly 15% of the nation’s gross domestic product, according to the World Bank.

Harris called the new investments a “first step” in what she said is intended to be a long-term commitment to improving conditions in Guatemala. The U.S. will also share 500,000 Covid-19 vaccines with Guatemala and the vice president suggested more could be sent at a later date.

Republicans have criticized Harris’s effort, repeatedly pointing out that she has yet to travel to the U.S. border with Mexico. She said in response that the reason she’s in Guatemala is “because this is one of our highest priorities,” adding that she wanted to talk about “what we can do in a way that is significant, is tangible.”

“I will continue to be focused on that kind of work as opposed to grand gestures,” she said.

The Biden administration’s migration strategy is not yet fully formed, and Harris’s advisers have framed her first overseas trip as a fact-finding mission to help develop policy. The final strategy is not expected to be released until after the vice president returns to the U.S.

U.S. officials have said the Biden administration’s plan will center on improving economic conditions in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador so their citizens have less reason to leave. That strategy has been tried before with mixed results; those countries remain among the poorest in the Western Hemisphere and racked by violence.

Harris regards corruption as a main driver of migration since it affects all sectors, from the economy to criminal justice. She has pledged to work with non-governmental organizations and companies to direct assistance. Later Monday, she plans to meet with civil society leaders and entrepreneurs before flying to Mexico.

“These are efforts that have not been tried in the past that we believe will be quite productive,” Harris said.

The benefits of greater U.S. financial aid may be used to soften the blow of tough messages Harris and other officials are expected to send about cracking down on corruption and upholding democratic principles.

The U.S. has already condemned the government of El Salvador for a recent purge of the judicial branch and views Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez warily since federal prosecutors implicated him in a drug trafficking ring involving his brother.

While Harris is meeting with the leader of only one of the three countries that make up the Northern Triangle of Central America, administration officials say they’re also working with El Salvador and Honduras.

Harris is expected to meet on Tuesday with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, said earlier Monday that he would sign a migration agreement with the new U.S. administration.

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