Harris focuses on migration during Mexico trip

By Melissa Mahtani, Melissa Macaya, Mike Hayes, Meg Wagner and Veronica Rocha, CNN

Updated 7:55 p.m. ET, June 8, 2021
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1:33 p.m. ET, June 8, 2021

Here's a look at the latest border figures — and what is fueling US-bound migration 

From CNN's Priscilla Alvarez and Natasha Bertrand

Migrants from Guatemala cross the border by the wall separating the United States and Mexico after they turned themselves over to authorities on May 12 in Yuma, Arizona.
Migrants from Guatemala cross the border by the wall separating the United States and Mexico after they turned themselves over to authorities on May 12 in Yuma, Arizona. Ringo Chiu/AFP/Getty Images

Tens of thousands migrants from Central America arrive at the US-Mexico border monthly. In April, of the 178,622 migrants encountered by US Customs and Border Protection, 79,190, or roughly 44%, were from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, according to the agency's data, the very countries where Vice President Kamala Harris is supposed to be addressing migration to the US.

The number of migrant encounters in April represented a slight increase over March for the highest one-month total in two decades, though fewer unaccompanied children arrived. According to Customs and Border Protection, 17,171 unaccompanied migrant children were encountered in April, down from nearly 19,000 in March.

While the number of arrests increased by 3% overall in April, the majority — more than 110,000 — were of single adults subject to quick expulsion to Mexico or their home countries under a Trump-era pandemic emergency rule.

The pandemic has taken a dramatic toll on Latin America, where Covid-19 cases and deaths soared and economies once projected to grow have been decimated. The region was also hit with two devastating hurricanes last year.

The decline in economic growth in 2020, according to the Congressional Research Service, is expected to worsen income inequality and poverty in the region. That, combined with pent-up demands and the perception of the Biden administration being more lenient, has fueled people trying to cross the US-Mexico border.

The Biden administration assigned roles early on to tackle migration, including Roberta S. Jacobson, who was appointed as a special assistant to the President and was a key official dealing with migrants at the US-Mexico border until stepping down in April.

The administration also assigned a Northern Triangle special envoy, a position held by Ricardo Zúñiga, who frequently travels to the region.

Harris' role — which mimics that of Biden under President Barack Obama — is intended to target what's driving people to the US.

Harris, thought to be a leading Democratic candidate for the 2024 presidential race should Biden not run for reelection, has not shied away from the tough assignment and is engaged and dedicated to her new role, sources told CNN.

But she and her staff appeared wary of becoming a scapegoat for Republicans for any and all problems at the southern border — a not-unfounded concern, especially after GOP lawmakers photoshopped her face onto a milk carton and accused her of being "missing" at the border.

12:34 p.m. ET, June 8, 2021

Harris and Mexican president witness signing of memo of understanding ahead of bilateral meeting 

From CNN's Nikki Carvajal and Kate Sullivan

Vice President Kamala Harris, left, and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, right, applaud a signing on June 8, at the National Palace in Mexico City. The signatories are Mexico's Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard Casaubon and John Creamer, Chargé d'Affaires US Embassy.
Vice President Kamala Harris, left, and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, right, applaud a signing on June 8, at the National Palace in Mexico City. The signatories are Mexico's Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard Casaubon and John Creamer, Chargé d'Affaires US Embassy. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Vice President Kamala Harris and Mexican President Andres López Obrador witnessed the signing of a "memorandum of understanding" between both countries to "establish a strategic partnership to cooperate on development programs in the Northern Triangle," according to the White House schedule. 

López Obrador responded to a shouted question from a reporter who asked if he would increase assistance on immigration enforcement. 

He responded, saying through an interpreter, that he would “be speaking to the vice president.” 

“We are very pleased to have her here and we will be touching on that subject, but always addressing the fundamental root causes,” the Mexican president said, before the two leaders walked away together. 

Both leaders will hold a bilateral meeting later this morning, and the vice president will participate in a conversation with female entrepreneurs, hold a roundtable with labor workers and greet US mission Mexico staff. 

Some more context on the VP's trip: Harris is facing the first major diplomatic test of her vice presidency, and her trip to Guatemala and Mexico underscores the Biden administration's heightened focus on Central America and migration from the region. The vice president met with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei on Monday.

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.

1:55 p.m. ET, June 8, 2021

Harris' message to those in region who contemplate undocumented migration

From CNN's Priscilla Alvarez, Maeve Reston and Jasmine Wright

Vice President Kamala Harris, left, and Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, attend a news conference on June 7 at the National Palace in Guatemala City, Guatemala.
Vice President Kamala Harris, left, and Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, attend a news conference on June 7 at the National Palace in Guatemala City, Guatemala. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Vice President Kamala Harris issued a strong message to those in the Northern Triangle who contemplate making the journey to migrate to the United States illegally: “Do not come.”

Harris spoke during opening remarks at a bilateral press conference with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei in Guatemala City on Monday.

“And I want to emphasize that the goal of our work is to help Guatemalans find hope at home. At the same time, I want to be clear to folks in this region for thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States, Mexico border. Do not come, do not come,” Harris said.

“The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border. There are legal methods by which migration can and should occur. But we, as one of our priorities, will discourage illegal migration. And I believe if you come to our border, you will be turned back. So, let's discourage, our friends, our neighbors, our family members from embarking on what is otherwise an extremely dangerous journey. Where in large part, the only people who benefit are coyotes,” she added.

Harris also confirmed that the United States would be sending 500,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines to Guatemala, something she shared with Giammattei in a phone call last week.

The Biden administration is facing ongoing political pressure to stem the tide of migrants at the US's southern border, which hit a two-decade high for a single month in April, according to US Customs and Border Protection's latest figures.

Nearly half of the 178,622 migrants encountered at the US-Mexico border came from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras that month.

Harris and her team have also been combating the perception advance by Republicans that she is the Biden administration's border czar. The vice president's portfolio is focused on stemming the root causes of migration, not the situation at the southern border, though the two are closely intertwined.

2:31 p.m. ET, June 8, 2021

Harris responds to criticism she hasn't visited US-Mexico border

From CNN's Nikki Carvajal

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks during a press conference with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei at the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura in Guatemala City, Guatemala, on June 7.
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks during a press conference with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei at the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura in Guatemala City, Guatemala, on June 7. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Vice President Kamala Harris compared not visiting the US-Mexico border to not visiting Europe in an interview that aired, in part, on Tuesday morning, saying it didn’t mean she was “discounting the importance of the border.”

The interview was shot Monday while the vice president was visiting Guatemala before heading to Mexico on her first foreign trip since taking office. NBC’s Lester Holt questioned Harris about why she hasn’t visited the border despite her role on Central American migration.

“I– and I haven't been to Europe. And I mean, I don't—” Harris responded, with a laugh, “I don't understand the point that you're making. I'm not discounting the importance of the border.”

She continued, saying she cares, “about what's happening at the border.”

“I'm in Guatemala because my focus is dealing with the root causes of migration. There may be some who think that that is not important, but it is my firm belief that if we care about what's happening at the border, we better care about the root causes and address them,” Harris said. “And so that's what I'm doing.”

The vice president and President Biden himself have been criticized, including by some in their own party, for not visiting the border as illegal crossings have surged. Last week, Rep. Henry Cuellar – a Texas Democrat – said it was “important” for the President and vice president to visit. 

10:55 a.m. ET, June 8, 2021

Harris will meet with Mexico's president soon to discuss migration. Here's what to expect.

From CNN's Jason Hoffman

Previewing her Tuesday meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Vice President Kamala Harris said that she will emphasize the United States longstanding partnership with its neighbor and the role it plays as a partner to the US in the region. The two leaders are set to meet at 11:00 a.m. ET.  

“That is the basis of the conversation that I will have with him is with that spirit, that we have to be partners, that we are neighbors, closest neighbors in the region. There is the issue of what we need to do around addressing as neighbors and as partners what Mexico's role can be as it relates to this region, to Guatemala, to the surrounding countries,” Harris told reporters yesterday.

Harris gaggled with reporters after her trip to Guatemala on Monday, saying she thought it was a good visit and she accomplished her goal of having direct conversations with people on the ground.

“There’s obviously a lot of work to do but there really is a lot of reason to know that there is hope in this region,” Harris said of her visit to the country.

Harris did not directly answer when asked why she emphasized that the US would turn migrants who were seeking asylum away at the US boarder when the reason they are seeing asylum in the first place is because they are fleeing a horrible situation, saying instead she is on the trip to address the root causes of the migration.

“I am here because the root causes are my highest priority in terms of addressing the issue and we need to deal with it, both in terms of the poverty we are seeing, the hunger that we are seeing, the effects of the hurricanes and extreme climate condition,��� Harris told reporters. Responding to criticism of her remarks from Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Harris again stressed that her focus is on addressing the root causes of migration. 
11:44 a.m. ET, June 8, 2021

Why Harris is traveling to Guatemala and Mexico

From CNN's Priscilla Alvarez, Maeve Reston and Jasmine Wright

Vice President Kamala Harris arrives at Benito Juarez International Airport for her official visit to Mexico on June 7 in Mexico City.
Vice President Kamala Harris arrives at Benito Juarez International Airport for her official visit to Mexico on June 7 in Mexico City. Hector Vivas/Getty Images

Kamala Harris left for Latin America on Sunday under intense political pressure to stem the flow of migrants to the US, with lots of people asking what she's doing heading out on her first foreign trip as vice president before releasing a comprehensive strategy.

The answer, according to people close to her, is that she's putting in the leg work to help inform the administration's strategy – and her own – for dealing with the tough assignment she's been handed.

She was in Guatemala yesterday, and is in Mexico today not to implement a one-and-done solution, but rather treating it as a fact-finding mission. The approach — and the studying up she's been doing before her departure — is classic Harris.

"We're still in the information-gathering mode, getting very close to being able to finalize it," a White House official told CNN. "The visit will certainly play a role in forming the Biden strategy."

The stakes are high for the first woman of color vice president now entering the international stage and doing so against the backdrop of a growing number of migrants arriving at the US-Mexico border. In April alone, US Customs and Border Protection encountered more than 178,000 migrants, 44% of whom were from Central America.

Despite the political risks the assignment carries, Harris sees it as an opportunity to enhance her foreign policy bona fides. She and her team are hoping for some short-term victories that will allow them to demonstrate progress, like the recent commitment from 12 private companies and organizations to invest in the Northern Triangle.

Read more here.