Kamala Harris will try to deepen the United States’ “strategic partnership and bilateral relationship” with Guatemala and Mexico on her first foreign trip as vice president, according to her senior staff members.
Harris will visit the region next week as part of her role leading diplomatic efforts to stem the flow of migration from Central America, and she will focus on economic development, climate and food insecurity, and women and young people, according to her staff. The trip 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 roll back some Trump-era immigration restrictions.
“The goal of the vice president’s trip is to deepen our strategic partnership and bilateral relationship with both the Guatemalan and Mexican governments to advance a comprehensive strategy to tackle the causes of migration,” said Symone Sanders, Harris’ chief spokesperson and senior adviser, in a call with reporters Tuesday night.
“We will also engage community leaders, workers, young innovators and entrepreneurs, and others about ways to provide economic security, address the core factors of migration, and to give people the hope for a better life at home,” Sanders added.
President Joe Biden had tasked Harris with the politically fraught assignment in March, and one official said she is “really picking up” from where Biden left off, after he was tasked by then-President Barack Obama to lead diplomatic efforts in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in his last term after a surge of unaccompanied minors from those countries began arriving in the US.
As CNN has previously reported, Republican critics and the media have portrayed Harris’ new immigration role as a border assignment, potentially opening her up to criticism for the handling of the seemingly intractable problem. Her performance is critical to her future political career, which could well include a run for president, as well as of special concern right now as she prepares to depart for the foreign trip – her first official foray into in-person, in-country talks about the troubles that push Central American migrants toward the US.
The vice president and her staff have made it clear that they want to focus narrowly on diplomatic efforts in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where they believe they are more likely to achieve tangible results in addressing the root causes of migration, like economic despair, according to two White House officials familiar with the dynamic.
The vice president will land in Guatemala on Sunday and has a day full of events in the country the next day, including an in-person bilateral meeting with President Alejandro Giammattei. Harris will then fly to Mexico that night.
She will have a bilateral meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in addition to other events on Tuesday before returning to the US the same day.
The vice president will meet with Guatemalan community leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs as well as greet and thank US embassy staff, per Mazin Alfaqih, special adviser to the vice president for the Northern Triangle.
In Mexico, Harris will participate in a conversation with female entrepreneurs, hold a roundtable with labor workers and greet US mission Mexico staff, according to Hillary Quam, special adviser to the vice president for the Western Hemisphere.
While it will be her first in-country and in-person meetings with leaders from both countries, Harris held virtual bilateral meetings with both leaders earlier this year. They came in a steady stream of highly produced events that showcased Harris meeting with government officials and private-sector companies and seeking input from experts and civil society leaders on how to best help the region.
“The vice president’s strategy is built around catalyzing efforts across the United States government, regional governments,” Sanders said, “as well as private sectors and philanthropic sectors and international partners.”
Last month, Harris announced she had secured commitments from 12 private companies and organizations to invest in the Northern Triangle, looking to bolster her work.
In next week’s bilateral meeting, Harris will discuss with Giammattei “ways to increase economic opportunities in Guatemala, strengthen rule of law and deepen bilateral law enforcement cooperation,” Alfaqih told reporters. Already in their virtual bilateral, the two sides agreed to increase the number of border security personnel, among other agreements. The US will also increase the number of its own security forces on the ground to provide training, Alfaqih said.
Asked whether Harris will address the asylum capacity in the region, White House officials said they expect the first migrant resource center, the creation of which was agreed on in the virtual bilateral meeting, to be open by next week’s trip.
In the vice president’s meeting with Mexico’s President, Harris will look to build on the two countries’ previous agreements to secure the US-Mexico border and work to bolster economic opportunities in the region while establishing “further areas of collaboration,” the officials said.
Sanders wouldn’t say whether Covid-19 vaccines would be a topic of discussion in both countries during the visit, just that they would discuss “Covid cooperation.”
In May, Harris met with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to brief members on the administration’s plans. CNN previously reported that Democratic Rep. Norma Torres of California said Harris had confirmed to the group that the Northern Triangle will be a part of the 80 million vaccine doses shared by the administration.
Sanders would not say Tuesday if there will be conversations in Mexico about Title 42, the public health authority put in place under the Trump administration in early 2020 that allows border officials to expel migrants encountered at the US-Mexico border due to the pandemic, lifting restrictions on nonessential travel, or the Temporary Protected Status for Guatemalans.
The vice president has yet to call the leaders of El Salvador and Honduras, as both have underlying issues that have dogged US efforts in the region for years and her staff is finding the best way to engage. Those delayed talks show just one aspect of the challenges in this task.
“We have to give people some sense of hope that if they stay, that help is on the way,” Harris told CNN’s Dana Bash in April. “It’s not going to be solved overnight; it’s a complex issue. If this were easy, it would’ve been handled years ago.”
CNN’s Arlette Saenz, Priscilla Alvarez and Natasha Bertrand contributed to this story.