Kamala Harris’ first trip abroad in the role of US vice president takes place in the name of immigration, the thorniest topic for the Biden administration after taming the pandemic. So, while the president files preparations for this week’s European mission, his number 2 is on a two-day visit between Guatemala and Mexico. The goal of the visit – explains his staff – is to launch a series of initiatives aimed at combating human trafficking and smuggling across the southern border of the United States. The long-term aim is even more complex: to intervene “at the root” on the problems that fuel migratory phenomena, encouraging people to stay in their countries of origin.
Harris, on her first international trip since taking office in January 2021, was appointed by President Biden as the owner of the migration dossier, coordinating relations with the countries of the so-called “northern triangle” – Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala – traditional starting point of flows towards the north of the continent. The Central American mission is considered a test of his leadership ambitions and his international projection, a path still to be built given his political experience deeply rooted in the State of California.
The program includes meetings with the President of Guatemala Alejandro Giammattei and exponents of the Guatemalan community. Three agreements are expected to be signed with the Guatemalan government which include border security, anti-corruption and economic development issues.
The basic strategy – in the words of Harris herself – is to “give people a sense of hope: make them understand that if they decide to stop, things will improve”.
So far, the Biden administration’s aid to Central America has been very limited. However, Biden proposed a $ 4 billion support package as part of a long-term strategy towards the region. In April, the United States Agency for International Development deployed a disaster response team to help with humanitarian assistance. In the same month, Harris announced that the United States would send an additional $ 310 million in humanitarian aid and to tackle food insecurity in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The VP also announced that a dozen companies and organizations – including Mastercard, Nespresso and Microsoft – have pledged to invest in the Northern Triangle countries to help spur economic development in the region.
One of the architraves of the US strategy will be the fight against corruption. An issue on which it will not be easy to find the square with the Guatemalan government of Giammattei, which long ago denounced how the phenomenon does not concern “only” the political class but also non-governmental organizations that in the country would exercise forms of illicit control of public money . In February, the president promulgated a law that increases controls, especially accounting, on NGOs, ignoring the concerns expressed by US parliamentarians. The alarm, also raised by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Guatemala, was triggered above all by an article of the law that makes possible the “immediate cancellation” and “civil and criminal” indictment of the leaders of those NGOs “that use donations or external funding to alter public order”.
Last week the White House issued a note confirming that Washington intends to use the non-governmental organizations operating on the ground as an essential tool for intervention in the fight against corruption, crime and, consequently, in the defense of national interests. A warning that was read in Mexico as confirmation that the Biden administration has no intention of turning off the taps in Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad, a body that the president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, openly defines as opposed to his government and therefore not eligible to receive funds from abroad.
The Guatemalan president has insisted on the need for a “clear” message to arrive from the States on the management of migrants, censoring the “backtracking” made after Biden’s first announcements on the suspension of controls previously imposed by Trump. Guatemala expects the US Congress to make that of “coyotes”, human traffickers, a federal crime and no longer a case of individual states.
The Mexican stage will be equally delicate. On Tuesday in Mexico City, Harris will first meet the president, López Obrador, in a private conversation and then the foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, with the two full delegations. According to reports from the special adviser for the Americas of the US State Department, Hillary Quam, the vice president should also hold talks with women entrepreneurs and speak at a round table with a group of workers, as well as talks with members of the US mission in the country.
The number two of the White House will arrive in Mexico at a particular time. The country has just voted in the mid-term elections, returning an estate but also a drop in the party of President Obrador. According to initial results, the ruling bloc should retain a majority in the lower house of Congress. Obrador’s Morena party will have to rely on the votes of its allies in the Workers’ Party and the Green Party, but together they should win between 265 and 292 seats in the 500-seat chamber. Morena alone is expected to have won 190 to 203 seats. This would mark a significant decline for the president’s party which has a simple majority in the current Congress, holding 253 seats alone. Furthermore, it would deprive the president of the two-thirds qualified majority needed to pass constitutional reforms.
That Harris’s visit has entered the internal political controversy is proven by the cancellation of his passage in the Senate, originally on the agenda on Tuesday, due to “lack of consensus”: “the invitation had mixed reactions among parliamentary colleagues”, reads in a note.
Mexico’s positions on immigration are clear: at the international climate summit promoted by Biden in April, Obrador had launched an offer to the United States to facilitate citizenship applications for migrants who commit themselves – under certain conditions of manner and time – to the social program “Sembrando vida” (Sowing life). It is a tool already in use in southern Mexico and that Obrador would like to extend to the countries of the northern triangle: farmers in the most disadvantaged areas are offered a monthly salary to sow fruit trees and wood in their crops, with the triple objective to give immediate employment, to start a business that could prove to be profitable tomorrow and to increase the green lung of the area. The White House has never formally responded.
Despite Central American expectations, no announcements are expected on the issue of offering temporary protection status (TPS) to Guatemalans. The TPS program allows people already in the United States to legally reside and work if their home countries have been affected by natural disasters, armed conflicts, or other events that prevent them from returning safely. Designations last from six to 18 months and can be renewed.
In addition to having some of the highest murder rates in the world, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have been rocked in recent years by political unrest, natural disasters and the Covid-19 pandemic, with its related economic crisis. The pandemic appears to have caused a drastic drop in migration from the region in 2020, but migrant crossings increased again in 2021.
In recent months, Biden formally canceled the “Stay in Mexico” program, formally known as Migrant protection protocols (MPP). It was a cornerstone of Trump’s border management policy, whereby potential asylum seekers were made to stay in Mexico to await the outcome of their application at the United States Immigration Tribunal. For this and other decisions on the subject, considered certain incentives for migration, the White House has ended up in the crosshairs of the GOP controversy: according to the US customs authorities, the number of migrants arriving from Mexico and Central America has increased from about 7,000 in January to about 19 thousand in April. Stopping this flow without losing the newfound “humanity” – this is how the US president has framed the lifting of the Trump-era measures – will be the great challenge of the Biden administration. With Kamala Harris in the front row, aware of the opportunities but also of the risks of a mission to be cultivated over the years.