Vice President Kamala Harris, recently put in charge of producing a strategy to stem the flood of migrants fleeing their homes in Central America, faces the challenge of how to aid countries with governments that are viewed as corrupt or unfriendly by the United States.
Harris is meeting with Biden administration officials and outside experts on Wednesday to discuss options for reducing the large numbers of migrants trying to enter the United States at the southern border.
“What we want to do both now, immediately, and over the long term is to give people hope about their futures, give them motivation to stay in their homes and flourish and try to build a better future for themselves and their children and frankly for our entire region because these are some of our closest neighbors, countries that we value,” a senior White House official said of Harris’ approach.
“It is something that the vice president is really focused on and determined to get right,” the official added.
The White House plans to work directly with aid organizations, community groups and private sector companies it hopes can create jobs and opportunity with economic investment in those countries, the official said on condition of anonymity. Harris has not spoken at length publicly about her regional strategy.
Harris has had private calls with the leaders of Guatemala and Mexico, and closed-door meetings with Cabinet secretaries, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and other U.S. officials, according to her office.
She has drawn criticism from Republicans over limited public remarks on the issue and for not visiting any of the countries that make up the Northern Triangle — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
“She is working harder on avoiding accountability for the crisis than she is on trying to fix it.,” Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel argued last week in a Fox News opinion piece.
The White House said that Harris would like to travel to that region. “She wants to do so as soon as it is appropriate and as COVID conditions allow,” the senior White House official said. “It is something that she is eager to do and we will try to make happen as soon as possible.”
In the three weeks since President Joe Biden tasked her with addressing the conditions that led to a 20-year high in attempted crossings at the southern border, Harris has not spoken with the presidents of Honduras or El Salvador about what can be done to keep their nationals from making the dangerous journey to the United States.
Last month, a U.S. judge sentenced the brother of Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernandez to life in prison after he was convicted of drug trafficking and other crimes. Prosecutors argued in sentencing documents that Tony Hernandez used his proceeds to direct millions of dollars of bribes to Honduran politicians, including his brother.
El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele refused last week to meet with the U.S. special envoy to the region during his trip after the State Department called on him to adhere to democratic standards.
Harris must carefully manage relationships with leaders accused by the U.S. government of corruption and eroding democratic institutions, regional experts say.
“You inevitably have to deal with most, if not all, of the governments at their highest levels on certain issues related to migration and related to addressing the root causes of migration,” said Dan Restrepo, who was the senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council in the Obama administration.
He said the administration should focus its efforts on supporting community groups on the ground in those countries that can help combat poverty and reduce crime, which would help keep people from fleeing.
Corruption is a long-standing problem in countries that make up the Northern Triangle — and the Biden administration says it has become endemic in Honduras in particular. Economic conditions worsened in the wake of two hurricanes that hit the region late last year.
The U.S. administration last week asked Congress to make a down payment of $861 million on a $4 billion assistance plan that President Joe Biden pledged to put in place to address gang violence, drug trafficking, destruction caused by natural disasters and other problems that experts say are contributing to unusually high levels of migration to the United States.
USAID also sent a Disaster Assistance Response Team to the region to begin ramping up the humanitarian response to the 2020 hurricanes that ravaged Central American countries and launch new programs intended to aid with job creation.
Biden is also seeking to re-establish programs he helped put into place as vice president in the Obama administration, which the Trump administration cut. Former President Donald Trump slashed humanitarian assistance to the region and refocused aid on anti-narcotics and security programs.
Among them is the Central American Minors Program, put into place by the Obama administration and terminated by former President Donald Trump in 2017. The Biden administration in March said it would restart the program that allows children to immigrate from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to the United States if their parents are lawful residents.
“When the election happened, the Trump administration came in and turned a lot of the programs off and tried to zero out the assistance funding, and so many of the things that then-Vice President Biden tried to do, didn’t have the time or the sustained focus to get off the ground,” a senior White House official, who briefed reporters on Harris’ efforts, said.
The Obama administration also provided funds for after-school and employment programs in the region that were intended to keep at-risk children from joining gangs or setting out for the United States, which regional experts say had the potential to be successful.
Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, said the Biden administration should also work with the United Nations and neighboring countries such as Costa Rica, Belize and Panama to ensure there are good asylum opportunities in the region for refugees.
It should also develop additional opportunities for private employers to bring temporary laborers to the United States from Central American countries under existing work programs, said Meissner, a former Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner.
Emphasizing corruption in U.S. messaging may be counterproductive to the administration’s goals in the near-term, said Maria Fernanda Bozmoski, deputy director of programs at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.
“That’s a very confrontational approach,” she said. “That’s not really going to help move the conversation or create bonds. So while that’s an underlying issue. We would think that it should not be one of the first things that comes up. And definitely the United States needs to work with these governments.”