Vice President Kamala Harris made a late May call to Honduras’ President Xiomara Castro with a subtle nudge that would neatly encapsulate her fraught task of addressing the root causes of migration to the southern border.
From her West Wing office, she received an update on the Central American leader’s progress to combat corruption, a source familiar with planning told CNN. And in return, Harris relayed a succinct message: The United States would welcome Castro’s participation at the high-profile Summit of the Americas that President Joe Biden will host this week in Los Angeles.
But, as of Monday, Castro – whose inauguration Harris attended just months ago – has still not committed to coming. Nor have the leaders of the other two nations – Guatemala and El Salvador – in Harris’ portfolio. And despite the efforts Harris and her team have made to cultivate relationships in the region during prominent trips and to secure $1.2 billion in private investments to bolster regional economies, major roadblocks remain as she addresses the drivers of migration in the Northern Triangle nations.
A White House official maintained that they are “seeing progress” and that the vice president is planning to roll out a new cache of private sector commitments, along with a new women’s empowerment program meant to be a continuation of the root cause strategy laid out last year.
But, like previous administrations, finding a reliable partner in the region has proved difficult.
In El Salvador, there’s been concern about limiting checks and balances in government, while in Guatemala, there have been concerns about government corruption. And in Honduras, there was an even greater concern about corruption within the government before Castro’s election. Now elected, Castro has struggled to make inroads rooting out corruption, restoring democracy and curtailing organized crime, which has rankled the country for decades. Those issues have all been identified by the Biden administration as having an outsized role in driving up migration.
Experts on the region say that this summit provides Harris an opportunity, on US soil, to show the progress she’s made.
“I really do look at this as an important moment,” Sergio Gonzales, the executive director of the Immigration Hub and former senior policy adviser to then-Sen. Harris, told CNN in an interview.
“Not only substantively in terms of the policies that the administration is going to hopefully roll out at the summit and the cooperation they’re going to look for with the other leaders who are attending. But I think also just in terms of communicating through the summit, ‘Here’s the progress we’ve made, and here’s how we’re going to continue to move this work forward,’” he added.
Harris will participate in a week of events during the Summit of the Americas meant to highlight her efforts to address the root causes of migration in Central America.
“The Vice President is focused on creating a prosperous and inclusive future for the people of the Western Hemisphere,” a White House official said.
Notably, Harris will deliver remarks to launch “new private sector and public sector initiatives to promote women’s economic empowerment and address gender-based violence in the region” and host a roundtable with business executives where she will “announce significant new investments in the region by the private sector.”
Harris leans on private investments
Since being tasked with this portfolio last year, Harris has leaned on the private sector to shore up support for Central America. In May, on her way to the United Arab Emirates, Harris called the leaders of the Partnership for Central Americas while on Air Force Two. The partnership acts as a liaison between companies and the US government.
Under Harris, US initiatives have already provided “micro and small businesses access to $100 million in financing to support economic recovery in the region,” according to a White House fact sheet released in April. The US’ support for private sector investment has also helped to create “more than 70,000” new jobs. And an anti-corruption task force was stood up to prioritize prosecutions against corrupt actors in the region.
Experts credit her ability to secure private sector investments as her most visible action in the region to date. Harris’ call to action for companies yielded commitments from major companies like Microsoft, Mastercard, Chobani, Duolingo, Nespresso, Bancolombia and Davivienda.
Nespresso, for example, is working with more than 1,200 farmers in the region and is sourcing coffees from farms in Honduras and El Salvador for the first time in the company’s history. Microsoft is planning to expand internet access to millions of people in the region by July. Along the way, the vice president has received regular updates and spoken with executives who have pledged to invest in the region, sources say.
But the tangible effect of those investments is not yet widespread and the heavy focus on the private sector has raised concerns among those who want to place greater emphasis on other issues causing migration.
“It seems that a plan that is centered on private sector investment cannot single handedly address the root causes, which range from internal displacement and poverty to – of course – violence, corruption, and natural disasters, plus the added factor, and I think increasingly, of climate change,” Rep. Jesus “Chuy” García, a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, told CNN, while commending Harris for taking on the task.
Ana María Méndez-Dardón, director for Central America at the Washington Office on Latin America, argued pandemic aid provided by the US – under Harris and Biden’s leadership – has had a greater effect in Central America. The US government has delivered more than 15 million free vaccines bilaterally and in partnership with COVAX, a global entity which supplies bulk vaccines across the world, to countries in northern Central America.
Méndez-Dardón said she would like to see an increase of short-term efforts focused on corruption, like sanctions on bad actors, to cut down on regional officials’ ability to degrade the rule of law while more of the long-term economic investments to curtail migration take time.
Aside from private sector commitments, Harris is planning to unveil a new initiative focused on getting women to take part in the economy, promote gender parity and target violence against women, those familiar with the plan say.
Jason Marczak, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, applauded those efforts, adding that looking forward, it will be essential to find opportunities that have longevity and find consensus in Congress so initiatives can “go beyond one administration.”
Tackling migration in the Western Hemisphere
Migration remains at historic highs amid deteriorating conditions in Latin America that were exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
At the US southern border, US Customs and Border Protection stopped more than 310,000 migrants from the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador from October through April, according to agency data. But a new trend has also been taking shape that’s posed a challenge to the administration: about 40% of border crossers are now from countries outside of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
More than 6 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants have fled the country, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Nicaraguans have also increasingly been migrating, as well as Haitians who had moved to the region years ago.
The Summit of the Americas will serve as a platform for the Biden administration, leaders of countries in the region, and the public and private sector to come to agreements about the path forward in stemming the flow of irregular migration. Harris has not broadened her root causes portfolio beyond the Northern Triangle countries, a source familiar told CNN.
Administration officials have been focused on expanding legal pathways for migrants moving in the hemisphere, not only to come to the United States, but also other countries in the region where there may be opportunities.
“One area where there’s a lot of common ground is, we have major job shortages in countries like the Unites States, Canada, Mexico and Spain. One of the primary drivers is people out of work, how do we link the two?” a senior administration official told CNN.
Officials are also preparing announcements on refugee resettlement and expanding family reunification to other countries, a pathway provided to people who have a relative in the United States.
There are also expected to be discussions at the summit on stabilizing countries that are already hosting migrants but grappling with a host of challenges related to the coronavirus pandemic, the senior administration official said, citing Colombia, Ecuador and Chile.