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Harris tackles migration in high-profile visit to Guatemala and Mexico. Here’s what’s on the agenda.

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U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris participates in a meeting with Guatemalan justice sector leaders at the Vice President's Ceremonial Office at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building May 19, 2021 in Washington, DC. In the meeting, Vice President Harris discussed the importance of a just, transparent, and impartial legal system in Guatemala that allows Guatemalans to build a safer and better future.
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris participates in a meeting with Guatemalan justice sector leaders at the Vice President's Ceremonial Office at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building May 19, 2021 in Washington, DC. In the meeting, Vice President Harris discussed the importance of a just, transparent, and impartial legal system in Guatemala that allows Guatemalans to build a safer and better future.

WASHINGTON – In her maiden trip abroad as vice president, Kamala Harris will travel to Guatemala and Mexico, where she'll meet this week with foreign leaders, community organizers and entrepreneurs in hopes of forging partnerships to help stem migration to the U.S. by addressing its root causes.

It's a tall order for Harris, whose portfolio expanded last week when President Joe Biden tapped her to lead the administration's efforts to protect voting rights as several Republican-led states move to restrict access to the ballot.

The two-day jaunt will test Harris' diplomatic and negotiating skills as she looks to resolve a politically fraught issue that has vexed several administrations and further cleaved apart Republicans and Democrats.

Harris has largely adapted a strategy Biden employed when he served in a similar role as former President Barack Obama's vice president: working with Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to address poverty, violence, corruption, lack of economic opportunity and other conditions sending hundreds of thousands of migrants from their homes to seek refuge in the U.S.

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Though the issues are deeply embedded in the countries, experts say the vice president has an opportunity to deepen relationships with Guatemala and Mexico by proposing policy changes that could help address a record increase in migrants at the U.S. southern border. Such proposals include enhancing anti-corruption initiatives, providing aid and partnering with nongovernmental organizations, and assisting Central American countries struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador signaled support for the Biden administration's approach in virtual meetings with Harris earlier this year, but the contours of those agreements are still taking shape.

Ariel Ruiz Soto, a policy analyst for the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, said that while he doesn't expect any significant compromises or agreements, the trip sets a new tone and serves as a symbolic gesture that the U.S. is reprioritizing in long-term solutions in the region after four years of cuts in aid by former President Donald Trump.

"The visit is really to solidify not just the commitments from these countries but actionable items that could be used in the future to hold these countries responsible and accountable and also to give a little more viability to civil society organizations in Guatemala that have for so long looked for an additional opening to be more in the picture," he said.

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For Harris, the trip also helps her burnish her credibility in the region and gives her a direct line to Central American and Mexican governments should they falter on agreements, Ruiz said.

"I think we're moving beyond commitments to action and to a more specific and more shared expertise in the region, but it's hard to tell how receptive the Mexican and Guatemalan presidents are going to be on this."

Symone Sanders, Harris' chief spokeswoman, told reporters Tuesday the vice president's strategy is "built around catalyzing efforts across the United States government, regional governments as well as well as private sector and philanthropic sectors and international partners."

Talks will center on economic development, climate and food insecurity and support for women and young people, she said.

Here's a look at issues likely to come up in Harris' discussions.

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Anti-corruption efforts

Experts say conditions have dramatically shifted in the region, including a backslide in democracy, rule of law and human rights.

Last month, the State Department issued a list of 16 current and former politicians it found to be corrupt in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández has been implicated in drug trafficking charges in recent years while his brother was sentenced to life for drug trafficking by a Manhattan court. Orlando Hernández denies the allegations.

Students from the University of El Salvador rally against Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele in February, a year after a military incursion into the Legislative Assembly in San Salvador.
Students from the University of El Salvador rally against Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele in February, a year after a military incursion into the Legislative Assembly in San Salvador.

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has faced global condemnation after his allies in the National Assembly removed five judges from the country's Supreme Court, as well as the attorney general, in what was seen as a power grab. Elsewhere, the State Department's annual human rights report warned of Mexico's gang violence and limits on press freedom, and it criticized the country's prison and detention center conditions. Lopez Obrador slammed the U.S. for the annual report and for giving aid to an NGO that criticized his government.

Adriana Beltrán, director of citizen security at the Washington Office on Latin America, said Harris needs to be "very clear" in addressing rule of law in Guatemala, including a controversial law targeting nongovernmental organizations as well as the recent decision by the country's Congress to refuse to swear in a judge – a prominent anti-corruption figure – to its Constitutional Court.

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"They need to be clear to have foreign investment for development and security, you need an independent judiciary," she said.

Beltrán said she hopes Harris meets with some of the judges, members of civil society and journalists who have suffered harassment and been the target of lawsuits to undercut their fight against corruption. Those who've been targeted require political backing of the U.S., she said.

Ahead of Harris' visit, the Biden administration unveiled a “national security study memorandum“ to make fighting global corruption a priority. A senior administration official who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity before the memorandum was released said combating corruption will be "front and center in the vice president's upcoming trip."

"Anti-corruption is a major focus for the administration and will be a focus of all her conversations while she's traveling," the official said.

Foreign investment

As part of its fight against corruption and a broader diplomatic strategy in the region, the administration has proposed $4 billion in aid to tackle the root causes of migration. But the White House has been careful to ensure the funding would not only go to governments but also to NGOs and civil society groups – entities Beltrán said Guatemala is trying to undermine.

Administration officials have signaled that any money sent directly to Northern Triangle governments would be contingent on measures of anti-corruption and good governance. Experts say a similar strategy under the Obama administration allowed some aid to embolden corrupt governments rather than provide assistance to communities in need.

A Guatemalan family waits with fellow immigrants to board a U.S. Customs and Border Protection bus to a processing center after crossing the border from Mexico April 13 in La Joya, Texas.
A Guatemalan family waits with fellow immigrants to board a U.S. Customs and Border Protection bus to a processing center after crossing the border from Mexico April 13 in La Joya, Texas.

"The aid can't just be showered bluntly or blindly and sort of being expected to trickle down," said Noah Gottschalk, lead on global policy at Oxfam America, an organization aimed at fighting poverty. "It has to target the roots of the issues that people are dealing with."

Less than 5% of U.S. foreign assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras between 2010 and 2020 went to local organizations, according to Faith in Action, a national network of faith-based community organizations in the U.S.

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But Gottschalk cautioned progress would not be immediate: "Even if they do that, we're not going to expect to see a decline in the number of people at the border tomorrow."

In a virtual meeting with Giammattei in April, Harris announced the U.S. would invest an additional $310 million in aid to tackle food shortages, natural disasters, the pandemic and other humanitarian issues eroding economic conditions in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

Among the resources the Biden administration is looking to provide are migrant resource centers to offer assistance for those looking for legal pathways to the U.S., those seeking protection and migrants who have been deported.

President Joe Biden has tasked Vice President Kamala Harris to lead the White House's efforts to handle a surge of migrants arriving at the southern U.S. border.
President Joe Biden has tasked Vice President Kamala Harris to lead the White House's efforts to handle a surge of migrants arriving at the southern U.S. border.

Harris and Giammattei agreed to open two migrant centers, and White House officials say they expect the first one to be open by the time of her visit to Guatemala.

More recently, Harris unveiled commitments from 12 companies and organizations, including Microsoft and Mastercard, to invest in economic development in the Northern Triangle countries. The money will go toward job training programs, food assistance and aid for vulnerable populations like women, indigenous people and young people.

Gottschalk said the private sector investments are another area where the U.S can make sure it's not repeating a history of corporate investments that are "largely extractive" and instead focus on creating sustainable investments that benefit the communities in the region.

COVID-19 vaccines

As the coronavirus pandemic persists, countries are clamoring for the U.S. to share its trove of surplus vaccines. The Biden administration has outlined its plan to share an initial 25 million doses through the global vaccine alliance known as COVAX, pledging to send about 6 million to South and Central America, 7 million to Asia and 5 million to Africa.

Biden, who has said that nearly half of the world's leaders had asked him for help in obtaining COVID-19 vaccines, has promised to share 80 million surplus doses worldwide by the end of June.

Mexico's undersecretary of health, Hugo Lopez-Gatell, speaks after receiving his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19 at a vaccination center May 13 in Mexico City.
Mexico's undersecretary of health, Hugo Lopez-Gatell, speaks after receiving his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19 at a vaccination center May 13 in Mexico City.

Giammattei said Thursday that Guatemala would receive half a million doses from the U.S., a move that some see as preempting Harris' discussions in Guatemala City, the nation's capital.

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The U.S. has already agreed to send 2.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Mexico, which has one of the world's highest per capita COVID-19 death rates. The AstraZeneca vaccine has yet to be approved for federal emergency authorization.

Also on the agenda in Mexico is a Trump-era public health order that allowed U.S. officials to immediately expel migrants apprehended at the border. The policy, known as Title 42, was enacted in the early months of the pandemic as a means of curbing the spread of COVID-19, although it circumvented U.S. immigration law.

The Biden administration kept the order in place but issued an exemption for unaccompanied minors. The policy is expected to be a friction point: Biden has faced mounting pressure to rescind the policy as the country begins to lift COVID-19 restrictions. Mexico, too, has in some cases refused to accept migrants back into its country as it had under the Trump administration.

TPS status for Guatemalans

Ahead of Harris’ visit to Guatemala and Mexico, activists are calling for the Biden administration to designate temporary protective status for Guatemalans.

TPS, created by Congress in 1990, exempts immigrants from deportation and provides provisional protection if the U.S. determines their countries have been afflicted by armed conflict, epidemics or natural disasters.

Guatemala has not been the subject of a TPS, according to Rosario Martínez, a migration researcher at FLACSO Guatemala, a Latin American and Caribbean international organization that promotes, researches and teaches in the field of social sciences. But a designation would promote “orderly and safe migration," she said.

Activists contend officials should designate the status because of economic hardships in the country that were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and compounded by back-to-back hurricanes last fall that decimated the region.

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Some activists also want to see a new TPS designation for people from other Central American countries like Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. There is a TPS designation for some migrants from those three countries, but it’s being litigated in the courts on whether the designation can continue. Those who have TPS from those countries still receive the benefits, but they are set to expire in October. New applicants from those countries, however, cannot apply. So some activists say a new TPS designation for those countries is necessary.

Last month, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced a new TPS designation for Haitians. There had been a TPS designation for Haiti, but it was also being litigated in the courts. The new designation allows new applicants to apply for TPS.

When asked whether Harris would discuss granting TPS for Guatemalans during her visit to the country, a Harris aide said conversations were ongoing but would not expand further on the topic.

“We don't want to get ahead of the conversations, nor the vice president and the very important work that she is doing,” Harris spokeswoman Symone Sanders told reporters on a call Tuesday.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kamala Harris taking trip to Mexico, Guatemala to discuss migrants

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