Kamala Harris, in Guatemala, Discusses Plan to Deter Migrants

Vice President Kamala Harris detailed efforts to combat trafficking and corruption in order to deter northward migration.

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‘Do not come.’ Harris, in Guatemala, details efforts to curb migration.

Vice President Kamala Harris was in Guatemala City on Monday to meet with the country’s president, Alejandro Giammattei.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

June 7, 2021, 11:50 a.m. ET

GUATEMALA CITY — During her first foreign trip as vice president, Kamala Harris said the United States would bolster investigations into corruption and human trafficking in Guatemala while also delivering a clear, blunt message to migrants seeking sanctuary and economic relief by crossing the border to the United States: “Do not come.”

Ms. Harris made the blunt statement during a trip that was an early yet pivotal test for a vice president with clear aspirations for higher office who is currently tasked with the complex challenge of breaking a cycle of migration from a region that has been plagued by corruption.

Ms. Harris met with President Alejandro Giammattei on Monday, and made her priorities clear.

“Most people don’t want to leave the place they grew up. Their grandmother. The place they prayed. The place where their language is spoken, their culture is familiar,” Ms. Harris said in opening remarks before the meeting on Monday. “And when they do leave, it usually has to do with two reasons: Either they are fleeing some harm, or they simply cannot satisfy their basic needs.”

After meeting with Mr. Giammattei for roughly two hours here, Ms. Harris announced that the United States would form a task force to crack down on smugglers trafficking migrants in Central America and Mexico. The Biden administration will also establish an initiative to invest in young women entrepreneurs and create an anti-corruption task force that “will conduct investigations and train local law enforcement to conduct their own.”

Ms. Harris was tapped by President Biden to invest in the region to discourage the vulnerable from making the dangerous journey north. Ms. Harris has already committed to sending $310 million to the region, part of a $4 billion, four-year plan to improve the economy in Central America. The plan is at the center of the Biden administration’s strategy to deter migration. Last month, Ms. Harris’s team touted commitments from a dozen private companies, including Mastercard and Microsoft, to develop the economy in Central America.

But questions remain over how Ms. Harris will ensure U.S. aid reaches those who need it most as she works with a Guatemalan government that continues to target entities fighting corruption. Guatemala in 2019 also expelled a United Nations-backed anti-corruption panel, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, best known by its Spanish acronym, Cicig, which worked alongside Guatemalan prosecutors to bring corruption cases but was also accused of having a political agenda by conservatives in the country.

Antony J. Blinken, the secretary of state, has expressed concern to the Guatemalan government about its criticism of a lead prosecutor in the region. Mr. Giammattei has accused the prosecutor, who supported the anti-corruption panel, of having a political agenda.

Mr. Giammettei himself was imprisoned for 10 months as a result of an investigation by Cicig into extrajudicial killings during a prison raid in 2006, when he was the head of the penitentiary system.

Standing alongside Ms. Harris at the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura, Mr. Giammattei rejected accusations that he sought to meddle in the affairs of prosecutors in Guatemala.

“There is judicial independence,” Mr. Giammattei said.

Ms. Harris made a point to say the anti-corruption task force established by the United States would focus on supporting local prosecutors.

“One essential ingredient of our priorities must be to fight corruption,” Ms. Harris said. “That has been one of our highest priorities.”

The Biden administration has continued to use a Trump-era pandemic emergency rule to rapidly turn away migrants, with the exception of unaccompanied minors, at the U.S.-Mexico border without providing them the chance to apply for asylum. Mr. Biden has said repeatedly that most migrants at the border would be turned away, even as Republicans seize on the soaring crossings to galvanize their base before the midterms.

“The United States will continue to enforce our laws and enforce our border,” Ms. Harris said.

The Biden administration will also establish new facilities throughout Guatemala where people can learn about obtaining asylum protections in the Central American region, rather than traveling to the U.S. border.

Mr. Giammattei said that the two governments would need to find common ground to work together.

“From now on, I offer you the best, historic relationship that there can be between the United States and Guatemala, in which you will find a country that wishes to cooperate, a country that wishes to unite efforts,” he said.

The Biden administration is expecting to record this year the most encounters at the border in two decades.

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