The White House is laying down the groundwork ahead of Vice President Kamala Harris’ first trip abroad as the lead on diplomatic efforts in Central America, hoping to finalize its strategy to take on the root causes of migration before she lands, multiple sources told CNN.
It’s a high-stakes negotiation for Harris, who in March accepted the politically fraught assignment from President Joe Biden to stem the flow of migration from Central America. Her first solo portfolio item, Harris has spoken with the leaders of Guatemala and Mexico and engaged with a slew of experts on the region, both behind the scenes and publicly, to gather information on the region and its needs.
All of that will culminate in Harris’ June visit to Mexico and Guatemala. It’s the first international trip she’ll take in her role as vice president – and one that underscores the administration’s heightened focus on Central America and migration from the region, especially as record numbers of unaccompanied minors cross the US-Mexico border and officials begin rolling back some Trump-era immigration restrictions.
Harris has set a goal to address corruption while providing economic opportunity and instill hope in the region to keep people from making the arduous journey to the US—something previous administrations have had little to no success with in decades. The systemic problems in Central America have also been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and last year’s hurricanes.
In anticipation of her trip, National Security Council officials have been in daily communication with Harris and her team, according to a senior administration official. Cabinet members, along with other administration officials, are also putting together proposals on the administration’s root causes strategy, which Harris is expected to discuss while in Mexico and Guatemala, another senior administration official told CNN.
Harris has been involved in the development of that strategy, the official added. “She’ll have to approve this. We’ll brief it to her, she’ll make changes and then once she’s ready to roll it out, that’s what we’re going to do,” the official said.
One source familiar with Harris’ thinking called her level of involvement, “in line with the Kamala Harris brand.”
“She has to be really part of and central to the development of it, rather than sort of happening to her,” the source said.
Senior officials are also traveling to the region to tee up discussions. Juan Gonzalez, NSC senior director for the Western Hemisphere, traveled to Mexico last week to discuss prompting investment in southern Mexico and the Northern Triangle, as well as renewing law enforcement cooperation with Mexico and charting a way forward on a security framework. And a group of advance staffers arrived in early May to get the lay of the land and plan the trip, another official said.
On Wednesday, Harris will also meet virtually with Guatemalan justice sector leaders.
Push for funding
The pandemic has taken a dramatic toll on Latin America, as Covid-19 cases and deaths have soared and economies once projected to grow have been decimated. The decline in economic growth in 2020, according to the Congressional Research Service, is expected to worsen income inequality and poverty in the region.
Biden asked Congress for $4 billion over four years to target community training, climate mitigation, violence prevention and anti-gang programs with US partners in Mexico and Central America. That task will be no easy feat in a divided Congress where Democrats maintain a slim majority. And it’s an issue Harris has zeroed in on in just two months on the job.
So far, the US Agency for International Development has deployed a Disaster Assistance Response Team to respond to urgent humanitarian needs in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and committed to sending an additional $310 million to Central America “for humanitarian relief and to address food insecurity.”
But officials and lawmakers concede the administration will also need bipartisan buy-in and additional funding. Harris is focused on both the diplomatic efforts and getting money, as well as finding bipartisan support among lawmakers, Sen. Chris Murphy, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee and chairs the Homeland Security subcommittee, told CNN.
Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, and Harris have repeatedly talked about her role and discussed the “big lift” of getting money appropriated in Congress, to “start alleviating the security and economic conditions” in the region.
On Monday, Harris also met with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to brief them on the administration’s plans. Democratic Rep. Norma Torres told CNN Harris went “into great detail,” on how she’s tasked USAID to appoint someone “specifically to review the past spending, the past USAID that has been allocated for the region and to accountability on where that money is, who went to and what were the results of that aid.”
Harris gave a detailed briefing on who she had been meeting with, from heads of state to civil society organizations to corporate partners and UN and confirmed the Northern Triangle will be a part of the 80 million vaccines doses shared by the administration, Torres added.
Torres said she requested a follow up meeting with CHC and Harris to go over, in detail, the administration’s request for cash to make sure their proposals were a good use of taxpayer’s money, a signal that it won’t be just Republicans Harris will have to sell her vision to. Democrats in the left wing of the party and from border towns have chided the Biden administration in the initial months for appearing to be unprepared to deal with the increase of border crossings.
Difficulties working with governments
Still, one of the challenges facing the administration will be navigating the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, all of which face varying problems. Some of those underlying issues have dogged US efforts in the region for years, but the lack of continuity in US government policies, changing relationships in the region, and a focus on migration prevention have also contributed to the substandard results.
“There are Democratic deficits in all three countries and corruption in government, but it looks different in all three countries. In El Salvador, the primary concern is about limiting checks and balances in government and in society, but the president is immensely popular,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, adding that in Guatemala, there are similar concerns.
“On the other hand, in Honduras, there’s much greater concern about corruption in the government itself and there’s limited public confidence in any of the political leaders,” he told CNN.
In January, US federal prosecutors said Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández helped an alleged drug trafficker deliver thousands of kilos of cocaine to the United States in exchange for hefty bribes – a claim the Honduran Presidency rejected on Sunday as “100% false.”
Harris has publicly called out El Salvador, singling out the El Salvador Parliament who recently dismissed the attorney general and top judges as undermining its nation’s highest court. Harris has not yet called the leaders of El Salvador and Honduras.
“We’re really trying to figure out the best way to engage,” Symone Sanders, Harris’ spokesperson and senior advisers, told reporters aboard Air Force Two in late April. “And so, the Vice President now has not yet engaged with the leadership of those countries, not to say that she won’t but right now we are doing so at a very senior administration staff level.”
There are ongoing discussions between regional experts and the administration about the intricacies of these governments and possible consequences for corruption, including sanctions, said Lisa Haugaard, co-director of the Latin America Working Group, an advocacy group who participated in an April roundtable with Harris.
“It’s really hard. These are very complicated governments that are following each other’s lead in the wrong direction and it’s not just easy,” Haugaard said.
In Guatemala, the Biden administration has made some inroads to start to improve conditions in the country and offer legal pathways to the US, including opening Migrant Resource Centers in Guatemala to provide services for people seeking to migrate and reintegration support for those returned from the US and other countries, according to a readout of Harris’ call with President Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala.
Another official added that the administration is laying the groundwork for engagements with El Salvador and working actively with Cabinet ministers of Honduras.
One senior administration official told CNN that the administration is working with Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala at various levels, adding that anti-corruption, good governance and rule of law in the region is a priority for the administration. “Those are tough conversations, but they have to be had,” the official said.
“These are not countries in which you can just organize a bilateral meeting between heads of state, without a concern as to what that may mean for the legitimacy of a corrupt regime,” Murphy echoed. “And, you know, an early, face to face meeting with some of these leaders whether they be at the federal or regional level can send the wrong signal.”