GUATEMALA CITY – During her first trip abroad as Vice President, Kamala Harris said the United States would step up its investigation into corruption and human trafficking in Guatemala while sending a clear, blunt message to undocumented migrants hoping to reach the United States: “Don’t ! Come.”
Ms. Harris issued the warning during a trip that was an early but crucial test for a Vice President currently in charge of the complex challenge of breaking a cycle of migration from Central America into a region plagued by corruption, violence and poverty invested.
While President Biden campaigned to lift some of the Trump administration’s border restrictions and allow migrants to seek asylum at the U.S. border, Ms. Harris reinforced the White House’s current stance that most of those crossing the border should , would be turned away and would instead need to find legal recourse or protection in the vicinity of their home country.
In discussions about corruption with the Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, who was criticized for his political agenda and the persecution of corruption fighters, she shied away from harsh language.
“We will try to eradicate corruption wherever it exists,” Harris said, adding that the government will support an anti-corruption department in the attorney general’s office. “That was one of our highest priorities in terms of focus that we set here after the President asked me to take on this topic of focus on this region.”
Mrs Harris, whose own ambitions for the presidency are clear, has been tapped by Mr Biden to invest in Central America to deter the weak from the dangerous journey north. Mr Biden was criticized by Republicans and some moderate Democrats during the early months of his tenure for the increasing number of unaccompanied minors crossing the US-Mexico border.
But the Biden administration has continued to use a Trump-era rule to reject most adult migrants, sparking backlash from human rights groups.
Rachel Schmidtke, the Latin America attorney for Refugees International, an immigrant-friendly group, said in a statement Monday that the organization was concerned. Ms. Harris’ statements preventing migrants from crossing the border undermine their right to seek asylum in the United States.
The Vice President’s top aides have tried to distinguish her role from the political landmine of border management. Instead, they said their focus is on working with foreign governments to strengthen the Central American economy and create more opportunities for people who are now fleeing to the United States as their best option.
Ms. Harris announced new steps in the effort on Monday. The Biden government will deploy homeland security officers to Guatemala’s northern and southern borders to train local officials – a tactic similar to that used by previous governments to deter migration. The State Department and Justice Department will also set up a task force to investigate corruption cases linked to Guatemala and the United States while training Guatemalan prosecutors.
“We had a very frank conversation about the importance of an independent judiciary,” said Ms. Harris. “We had a conversation about the importance of a strong civil society.”
For his part, Mr Giammattei described the allegations against him as “misinformation”.
He also said that during a meeting with Ms. Harris, he again asked the Biden government to temporarily exclude some Guatemalans from deportation by granting protections normally provided to those fleeing natural disasters or war, referring to Hurricanes that hit Central America last year. When he questioned Ms. Harris in front of reporters on the matter, she did not respond directly.
The Biden government also outlined a $ 48 million investment in entrepreneurship programs, affordable housing and agricultural businesses in Guatemala, part of a four-year plan of $ 4 billion to invest in the region. Ms. Harris last month announced the commitment of a dozen private companies, including Mastercard and Microsoft, to develop the Central American economy.
Behind these programs, however, are questions of how to ensure that US aid goes to those who need it most, not just the contractors recruited by the United States or Guatemalan officials.
In 2019, Guatemala identified a United Nations-backed anti-corruption body called Cicig, which worked with Guatemalan prosecutors to bring cases of corruption but was also accused by conservatives in the country of having a political agenda.
Ricardo Zúñiga, Mr. Biden’s special envoy for Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, described such independent anti-corruption bodies as “very successful efforts”. However, Ms. Harris’ team did not say that Guatemala needed an independent body to investigate corruption.
“The point is that there is no specific model,” said Mr. Zúñiga. “It’s about supporting the people within government or within the institutions, mainly judicial authorities, who have the will and the ability to move these cases forward.”
Ms. Harris made a point in her opening remarks to focus on encouraging potential migrants to stay closer to their homes while they apply for a permit to enter the United States and await responses. Days beforehand, their top assistants announced that they would be building a new center in Guatemala where people in Central America can find out about asylum protection or refugee status instead of traveling to the US border.
“Most people don’t want to leave the place where they grew up. Your grandmother. The place where they prayed. The place where their language is spoken is familiar to their culture, ”said Ms. Harris. “And when they leave, it usually has two reasons: Either they are fleeing damage or they simply cannot meet their basic needs.”
In Chex Abajo, a mountain village 255 miles from Guatemala City, where Ms. Harris was speaking, Nicolás Ajanel Juárez said that despite promises made by various American presidents, his community was unable to cater for such necessities.
The village of indigenous corn farmers embodies the daunting task the Vice President faces. Mr. Juárez, a member of the local leadership, said many of the 600 residents watched their homes blow away in two cyclones. The profits from corn harvests are no longer reliable as climate change has prolonged the dry season.
Many families in the village depend on remittances from relatives in the United States. Those whose standard of living has been raised by US wages have larger cement and iron houses marked with stars and American flags. The main street in the village is called Ohio because of the large number of migrants who have found work in landscaping in the state.
Mr Juárez, who crossed the border three times in the past two decades, said migration to the United States will continue until community members have stable jobs.
“It would be best if aid could come directly instead of through the government because it is lost there,” Juárez said against the music played for a nearby ceremony commemorating a member of the community who lived in two years ago entered the United States and died. “Politicians don’t know because they don’t come here to see the needs of the people with their own eyes.”
After meeting with Mr. Giammattei, Ms. Harris met a group of women who have organized development programs for indigenous communities or organized training courses for those looking to acquire business skills.
Before that, however, she recognized the symbolic weight of being the first female vice president and making Guatemala her first overseas destination in that office. While a group of protesters with signs against Mrs. Harris’ visit stood near an entrance to the military airport, a number of families, including many women, stood by another fence hoping to catch a glimpse of the Air Force II landing in To catch Guatemala.
“As far as I can influence my gender and being the first, I welcome that,” Ms. Harris said, adding, “You may be the first to do it, but make sure you do they are not. “the last.”
Pedro Pablo Solares contributed the coverage from Guatemala City.