In Guatemala, Kamala Harris details efforts to stem the tide of migrants to U.S.

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Vice President Kamala Harris outlined new efforts to fight corruption and human trafficking in Guatemala on Monday as part of the Biden administration’s broader effort to address the root causes of migration from Central America.

“The goal of our work is to help Guatemalans find hope at home,” Harris said during a joint press conference with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei.

“Most people don’t want to leave home; they don’t want to leave the place where they grew up, where the language they know is spoken, where the culture they know is present and has been for centuries,” she added. “If they do, [it’s] usually for one of two reasons: fleeing some type of harm, or to stay means they cannot provide for their essential needs or the needs of their family.”

Harris, who has been tasked with leading the Biden administration’s ambitious effort to stem the flow of migration across the U.S.-Mexico border, is slated to meet with elected officials and civic leaders in Guatemala and Mexico this week.

US Vice President Kamala Harris speaks during a press conference with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei at the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura in Guatemala City on June 7, 2021. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
Vice President Kamala Harris at a press conference with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei in Guatemala City on Monday. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Following bilateral talks with the Guatemalan president Monday, Harris told members of the press that she was “proud to report agreements President Giammattei and I have made today will strengthen the security and prosperity for both people of Guatemala and the people of the United States.”

In addition to new anti-corruption and anti-smuggling task forces, which will be led by the U.S. Department of Justice with support from the State Department, Harris announced efforts to address Guatemala’s lack of stable economic opportunities — one of the top drivers of migration — that will include investments in affordable housing, agribusinesses and a Young Women’s Empowerment Initiative that will focus in particular on closing significant gender gaps faced by young, primarily Indigenous women.

The U.S. will also donate 500,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses to Guatemala, Harris said.

Guatemala's President Alejandro Giammattei speaks during a news conference with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris at the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura, in Guatemala City, Guatemala, during Harris' first international trip as Vice President to Guatemala and Mexico, June 7, 2021. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Harris and Giammattei during their news conference on Monday. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

President Biden charged Harris with heading the White House’s response to stemming Central American migration in late March, as the administration scrambled to address the latest influx of migrants, including record numbers of unaccompanied children, arriving without documentation at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The White House has emphasized that Harris’s assignment is primarily a diplomatic one, focused on addressing the core issues on the ground in the Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) as well as Mexico, whose citizens make up a significant portion of those seeking asylum protections in the U.S.

Still, her responsibilities in this role have generated some confusion and criticism, with some Republican lawmakers lambasting the vice president for not visiting the southern border despite rising numbers of migrants attempting to cross. 

Asked about those political attacks during Monday’s press conference, Harris said the reason she came to Guatemala on her first trip as vice president is that stemming the tide of migration to the southern border “is one of our highest priorities.”

“I will continue to be focused on that kind of work as opposed to grand gestures,” she said. She also sought to discourage further migration from the region, insisting that those who arrive at the U.S. border without proper documentation “will be turned back.”

“I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the U.S.-Mexico border: Do not come. Do not come,” she said. “Let’s discourage our friends, our neighbors, our family members from embarking on an extremely dangerous journey where, in large part, the only people who benefit are coyotes.”

Guatemala's President Alejandro Giammattei attends a news conference with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris (not pictured), at the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura, in Guatemala City, Guatemala on June 7, 2021. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
President Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Giammattei has also faced heightened criticism, including from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, about his own government’s challenges to existing anti-corruption efforts, such as those pursued by one of the region’s chief prosecutors, whom Giammattei has accused of having a left-wing agenda.

Asked about Giammattei’s record on corruption, and why she believes he can be trusted as a partner on this issue, Harris managed to skirt the question, stating simply that the Biden administration’s stance is “unambiguous: We will root out corruption wherever we can.”

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