As President Joe Biden’s approach to migration at the US-Mexico border confronts its most critical test yet when Title 42 expires, his No. 2, Kamala Harris, will face what’s likely to be her own perception problem.
Aides of the vice president know the expiration of the Trump-era border restriction that allowed authorities to quickly expel migrants on public health grounds will bring with it a deluge of attacks against Harris, who leads the administration’s effort to address the root cause of migration in Central America.
It’s a 2-year-old task, assigned by Biden, that’s placed Harris at the apex of political vulnerability, with Republicans’ consistently framing her as the “border czar,” who has not quelled the historic surge of migration in the Western Hemisphere.
But Harris’ staff and allies counter that the real work she and her office are doing in the Northern Triangle countries – and not the border – is making a difference.
“While Republicans are focusing on these border attacks, we are doing the work of governing,” an administration official told CNN. “Each agency is slowly and steadily making progress on implementing what we laid out we’re trying to do there.”
Though Harris has rejected GOP framing that she’s responsible for border policy, she’s struggled to change the narrative. And flare ups at the border will come almost a month after Biden and Harris launched their 2024 reelection bid, testing voters opinions on this emotionally charged issue.
“Perception is a big part of politics,” said Andrew Selee, president of the non-partisan think tank Migration Policy Institute, who met with the vice president in 2021. “It matters for the vice president what happens over the next few weeks and the next few months.”
Migration from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to the US has reached notable lows since its height in 2021, while migrants from other countries like Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua have increased dramatically.
Border arrests are often cited in assessing an administration’s handling of the US-Mexico border, even if they are not the most apt metric, experts say. White House officials are keenly aware of that and watching closely to see if the number of migrants from Central America tick back up in the coming days and weeks, the administration official said.
Publicly, the vice president’s office has called the current downward trend “encouraging,” and privately, aides cite investments in the region under Harris’ guidance as one of many factors for the drop.
So far, the vice president has secured more than $4.2 billion in private sector commitments from companies as a fundamental part of her plan to incentivize would-be migrants to stay home. Around 47 entities are collaborating across financial services, textiles and apparel, agriculture, technology, telecommunications, and nonprofit sectors to bolster the region’s economy, according to a White House fact sheet from February, the last major public update.
Diplomatically, Harris has visited Guatemala and Honduras. She’s held in-person and on the phone conversations with those counterparts but affronts to democracy and corruption concerns have limited Harris’ ability to fully engage, officials say.
Harris’ public events to tout the progress made in the region have waned in the last year with her attention turned to other domestic crises like reproductive rights, voting rights and shoring up democracy. Still, those close to the Harris say she is routinely involved.
“She’s engaged. She knows the content. She’s driving the team forward as an executive should. She gives us direction in a clear manner,” Jonathan Fantini-Porter, executive director and CEO of Partnership for Central America, which acts as a liaison between companies and the US government and regularly engages with the vice president’s office. “You can have a very in-depth conversation with her. She’s able to talk about metrics, direction of where things are.”
The vice president receives monthly updates, a source familiar with Harris’ schedule said. Many times, the meetings consist of a progress review and strategic vision. But the next 48-hours and likely weeks ahead once Title 42 is lifted will test the credibility and efficacy of the vice president’s mission.
“The people who will be loudest, they’re playing politics,” said Dan Restrepo, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former senior Obama adviser who met with the vice president’s office on this issue.
Restrepo added, “They aren’t particularly interested in working the issue, they’re interested in the political benefits.”
Harris’ longterm plan
The vice president’s task, the first major issue assigned to her in March 2021, was billed as a longterm effort to develop a larger strategic partnership with Central American countries and stem the flow of migrants. At the time, an influx of unaccompanied minors apprehended on the US southern border were from Central America – a region where major hurricanes and the coronavirus pandemic took a devastating toll.
Since then, the number of border encounters from there have receded. In March 2021, border authorities encountered more than 85,000 migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. During the same time period this year, the number dropped to around 34,000, according to US Customs and Border Protection data.
In the last two years, the vice president has launched two pillars of her long-term plan: a “Call to Action” to court businesses to invest in the region and an initiative dubbed “Central America Forward,” that focuses on good governance and labor rights.
Ensuring good governance has been the hardest part of Harris’ task due to the unfavorable conditions to foster democracy. 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, the election of President Xiomara Castro has not brought radical change to corruption or organized crime once believed.
“Combatting corruption is a central pillar of our effort to address root causes of migration, and we will not waver in this,” a White House official told CNN. “But the existence of corruption has not prevented us from successfully tackling additional root causes of migration.”
In the absence of the environment to deepen diplomatic relationships, Harris has leaned hard into private sector investments. She’s courted millions from companies like Microsoft, Mastercard, Chobani, Duolingo, Nespresso, Bancolombia and Davivienda. Microsoft pledged to expand internet access to as many as 3 million people in the region by July 2022 and Chegg, an online-learning platform, has committed to certifying 100,000 young adult students in Honduras by 2030.
Experts credit Harris’ ability to secure private sector investments as her most visible action in the region to date. Still, those who have stake in the region question the durability of those investments over the long term without more diplomatic success in the region.
“If you’re trying to build these relationships with these corrupt actors and you’re just so focused on investment, investment, investment without requiring conditions to those countries, I think that’s problematic,” Ana María Méndez-Dardón, director for Central America at Washington Office on Latin America, told CNN.
Harris’ efforts alongside the Partnership for Central America are meant to lay down the economic groundwork now to reap major benefits for the people of Central America in the future. And the US government, they say, has stepped up their own abilities to match private investments. A White House official says the administration is on track to meet its commitment under the Root Causes Strategy to increase US foreign assistance to the region by providing $4 billion over four years.
But most, who support the vice president’s efforts, have cautioned that it’s likely too soon to see the real impact of those contributions in the region.
“I think we will only actually know if a strategy is working a few years down the road, because, again, this is a strategy that’s tackling long-term systemic issues,” Jason Marczak, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, told CNN.
So, the vice president will have twin challenges, experts and allies maintain. First is to progress in her Northern Triangle task and second, is to battle the perception that she is responsible for the border too, no matter how chaotic the situation becomes.
“The vice president’s big problem on this issue is that she’s wanted to own the investment side, but not the border strategy,” a source familiar with the vice president’s strategy told CNN. That makes her vulnerable, the source said, because, “she’s politically responsible for whatever happens.”