In a full day of meetings in Guatemala, Vice President Kamala Harris will face her first major diplomatic test as she seeks to address the root causes of migration to the United States.
After entering office with little experience in foreign policy, Harris has been eager to bolster her credentials. After weeks of laying the groundwork for meetings in the region, Harris and her team see this first international trip as an opportunity to advance that effort.
In a speech in Guatemala City, Harris said her trip, as well as President Joe Biden’s first trip abroad later this week, are examples of their administration’s desire to repair ties with allies. Biden will travel to Europe on Wednesday for a meeting of the Group of 7, a NATO summit, and his first face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin as President.
“I’m in Guatemala today to discuss and advance our shared priorities. Foremost among those, as you have mentioned, is addressing migration, from this region in particular,” Harris said. “I know, as you do, that Guatemala is a country with incredible resources — historically and currently — but there is work that we can do together to grow the capacity of those resources and to reach the people.”
Ambassador Nancy McEldowny, Harris’ national security adviser, told CNN that Harris chose Guatemala as the destination for her first foreign trip as a sign that Central America is high on her priority list.
“It shows the priority that she places on the strategy that she’s building out on the cooperation between our two countries,” McEldowney said. “We value this place, and we want to be helpful.”
Harris has developed a “real rapport” with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, according to a senior official, which she hopes to build on with clear policy agreements.
According to US Customs and Border Protection’s latest figures, the tide of migrants at the US’s southern border reached a two-decade high for a single month in April, putting political pressure on the Biden administration.
The Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras accounted for nearly half of the 178,622 migrants encountered at the US-Mexico border that month.
Republicans have been claiming that Harris is the Biden administration’s border czar, which Harris and her team have refuted. Though the two are intertwined, the vice president’s portfolio is focused on addressing the root causes of migration rather than the situation at the southern border.
“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 told reporters of her visit to Guatemala Monday.
The root causes of migration, she said, “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.”
“So I’m very clear about what our role and responsibility is. We need to address the root causes, also the acute causes, those that are more recent, but also the long-standing issues like corruption,” Harris added.
Aside from the confluence of migration factors that Harris is attempting to address — from poverty and hunger to climate change and crime — Harris will need to engage in deft diplomacy as she attempts to address the issue of corruption in Guatemala and the Northern Triangle as a whole.