On her first-ever international diplomatic trip as vice-president, Kamala Harris is taking on one of the nation’s biggest issues: immigration.
Ms Harris met the president of Guatemala on Monday and will visit Mexico’s later this week.
Ms Harris has described her task as finding solutions to address the root causes of the border crisis. Her staff says this first visit is primarily an information-gathering trip.
In a bilateral news conference with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, she warned against illegal migration to the US, saying: “If you come to our border you will be turned back.”
During this visit, she is also expected to meet with local business and community leaders as she looks to tackle underlying problems in the region, including corruption and the lack of economic opportunities.
Here are four key items on Ms Harris’ agenda.
More than 178,000 migrants arrived at the border this April, the highest one-month total in more than two decades, according to US border officials.
Of those migrants, more than 40% originated from the Central American region known as the Northern Triangle: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
This will be the main focus of Ms Harris’ trip, where she is meeting with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Ahead of her meeting in Guatemala, US officials announced the creation of a multi-agency task force that will seek to tackle human smuggling in southern border regions.
The US Departments of State, Justice and Treasury will conduct investigations and train local governments to conduct their own, Ms Harris said in a news conference with Mr Giammattei on Monday.
The vice-president added that she believes “most people don’t want to leave home” but do so in order to survive, while also emphasising that one of the administration’s priorities is to “discourage illegal migration”.
Ms Harris has already held closed briefings and roundtable discussions in the White House on these issues.
This week’s trip will provide more details for the administration to develop a comprehensive strategy to address the root causes of migration, the vice-president’s aides say.
“I’m there to listen as much as I am to share perspective,” she said ahead of her trip.
Since she was assigned the job overseeing immigration issues by President Joe Biden in March, the California Democrat has faced intense criticism from Republicans who have questioned why she is yet to visit the US’ southern border.
When asked on Monday about these remarks, Ms Harris said choosing Guatemala as her first international trip shows immigration “is one of our highest priorities”, adding she came to discuss “real results” rather than make “grand gestures”.
A central issue contributing to the border crisis is the corruption of government officials in the region, who have been accused of aiding in drug and human trafficking.
Ms Harris is expected to discuss the situations in Guatemala and Mexico. But the vice-president has yet to speak to the leaders of Honduras and El Salvador.
“We have the capacity to give people hope,” Ms Harris said last month. “Part of giving people hope is having a very specific commitment to rooting out corruption in the region.”
Mr Giammattei of Guatemala, who has faced criticism over corruption within his government, told CBS News over the weekend that Ms Harris “doesn’t hold back, which is good. She is frank”.
But some Guatemalans have questioned if a US-backed anti-corruption agenda would intrude upon their domestic sovereignty with other issues as well.
One protester on Monday, retired infantry Cpt Jorge Lemus, told Reuters he was against the US “wanting to impose its LGBT, pro-abortion policies”.
While in Guatemala, Ms Harris danced around the issue of corruption, refusing to refer to the government of any country in the region as “corrupt,” when pressed by US reporters.
Many migrants leaving the Northern Triangle say they are fleeing violence, discrimination and poverty.
The steady “brain drain” of locals has exacerbated problems caused by decades of political instability.
These countries have also stressed that they are feeling the most adverse effects of global warming – most notably hurricanes – despite hardly contributing to climate change.
Ms Harris said in her press conference in Guatemala that “we are doing the work of requiring certain progress be made” in order to attract US investment to the region.
She also pledged US investments towards agriculture, entrepreneurship and affordable housing, as well as for “a young women’s empowerment initiative to increase education and opportunities for girls and women”.
On her trip, Ms Harris is set to discuss a new round of funding for the region, after the White House in April announced it would release $310m (£219m) to help with food shortages and disaster recovery.
Creating more stable conditions will involve not just government funding, but also partnering with the private sector and pushing for investment in these countries.
Ms Harris recently secured commitments from 12 US organisations to promote economic opportunity and job training in Central America. She is also scheduled to meet innovators, entrepreneurs and labour leaders in Guatemala and Mexico during this trip.
Last week, the White House announced it would share 25m doses of Covid-19 vaccines with the rest of the world.
Of that, Guatemala is set to receive 500,000 and Mexico one million.
The region has been hard hit by the virus, further worsening living conditions. Mexico has the fourth highest number of deaths in the world – with the toll approaching 230,000, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The economies of all three countries in the Northern Triangle have also been severely damaged by Covid closures, the International Monetary Fund reported. Humanitarian advocates say the region has seen an increase in extreme poverty as a result.
This vaccine initiative appears to be one more part of the Biden-Harris administration’s effort to foster teamwork more broadly on the issue of immigration.
A trip underlining the scale of the task ahead
For the Guatemalan government, there will have been some satisfaction in being the hosts of the vice-president’s first international visit. It is a sign of improved ties with Washington after the Trump administration. However, in reality, the Biden administration has few other feasible partners in the region, embroiled as they are in diplomatic tension or open conflict with the presidents of Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
The joint news conference revealed a number of things.
Certainly the rhetoric from the Biden administration is more compassionate than over the past four years. The vice-president mentioned “hunger, hurricanes and pandemic” as “acute” drivers of migration, and talked of empowering the indigenous community in Guatemala.
Certainly the promise of 500,000 doses of the coronavirus vaccine from the US will have been welcomed as the region lags well behind much of the world on the road towards a fully-vaccinated society.
But many Guatemalans will have met other measures with some scepticism.
The proposed anti-trafficking and anti-smuggling measures will struggle to unpick the sophisticated criminal networks, which run the migrant and drug routes north. Despite much talk of creating jobs and incentives inside Guatemala, many know that Washington’s plan also involves bolstering the police and security forces to better prevent migrants from leaving in the first place. And the promise of hundreds of millions in development aid will also ring alarm bells over exactly how those funds will be administered.
Indeed, the discussion of a corruption task force appeared to touch a raw nerve with President Giamattei, who became defensive as he denied “meddling” in the work of anti-graft prosecutors in the country.
If nothing else, this trip has underlined the scale of the task ahead.