The people of Guatemala are out of focus during Kamala Harris’ trip to fix root causes of migration
Beyond the veil of diplomacy, the future of Guatemalans forced to migrate to the U.S. rides on a solution.
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Vice President Kamala Harris was appointed by President Joe Biden to lead the country’s diplomatic ventures within Central America, specifically the Northern Triangle, to focus on what the administration has continued to term the “root causes” of migration.
The Biden administration is already expected to record this year with the most encounters at the border in two decades. Seventy-five days after her appointment, Harris made her first venture outside of the United States as Vice President, to meet with President Alejandro Giammattei.
“The president and I discussed a fundamental belief that most people don’t want to leave home. They don’t want to leave the palace where they grew up. Where the language they know is spoken. Where their culture that they know is present and has been, in this case, for centuries,” Harris said.
She began her live address immediately after her meeting with the president to discuss the topic of migration with reporters. Harris said most people don’t want to leave their homes.
“And when they do, it is usually for one of two reasons. Because they are fleeing some type of harm, or because to stay means that they cannot provide for their essential needs and the needs of their family,” she said before Giammettei.
In an interview that aired on CBS hours earlier, Giammattei said he had pushed against the Biden administration’s terminology for root causes, being that it is linked to intense economic disparities, the climate crisis, and violence.
Giammattei said the two “are not on the same side of the coin,” on the matter.
Instead, the Guatemalan president placed blame on what he called a shift in tone regarding immigration on the U.S.’s part, calling it more welcoming since the party changed.
Last week for instance, the Biden administration formally ended the Trump-era ‘Remain in Mexico’ program, which forcibly returned thousands of asylum seekers to uncertain conditions in Mexico before their court hearings. This would often take several months or more.
"We asked the United States government to send more of a clear message to prevent more people from leaving," he said.
On this, Harris delivered in part.
First, she focused on delivering a message of “hope,” saying that immigrants need to know that they are seen and heard, and that the two nations recognize their capacity.
“But we also understand their challenges and their need for support and the resources that any human being needs,” she said. “I believe that our world is interconnected and interdependent and certainly the most recent issues that have plagued our globe, including the pandemic have made that point clear.”
This was a precursor to the announcement of several initiatives by the U.S. — mostly consisting of a few task forces — and the deliverance of 500,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to Guatemala. She had already announced this prior to her trip.
Harris announced the formation of an Anticorruption Task Force, a Human Smuggling and Trafficking Task Force, a U.S. — Guatemala Young Women’s Empowerment Initiative, and a $48 million “Economic Opportunity” initiative to invest in entrepreneurs, affordable housing, agriculture, and small businesses in Guatemala.
“The president and I agreed to continue our work to manage migration at Guatemala's northern and southern borders. We also discussed illicit drugs that are being smuggled and humans that are being trafficked across those borders, undermining the security of both the people of Guatemala and the people of the United States,” said Harris.
The Biden administration quickly identified the climate crisis as a driving force for migrants leaving their homes. Last year, Hurricanes Delta and Eta slammed into Central America, and the hardest-hit regions have yet to recover. In part, this exacerbated already-present crop failure and famine in certain regions, and as the human-driven climate crisis worsens, conditions will likely persist.
Through recent interviews, like the aforementioned CBS sit-down interview with Ed O-Keefe, Giammattei appears frustrated with this sort of focus within the issue rather than a clear show against immigration by the Biden administration.
In what is now the first stern warning to deter immigration, Harris delivered on it for the first time since assuming her position.
"I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: Do not come. Do not come," she said, later calling on the Guatemalan people to try to stop others from migrating to the United States.
The people out of focus
While the Biden administration via Harris traveled to Guatemala in a traditional fashion, extending a show of good faith with these initiatives and investments, it doesn’t mean that Giammattei will agree on solutions, or that one way is the adequate way forward.
That’s especially since both countries continue to ignore their role in the issue of mass migration in Guatemala — from corruption to interference.
It doesn’t matter what the message is to migrants from the United States. Whether the country is welcoming or not, if conditions in Guatemala continue as they are, people will continue to leave.
At one point, a reporter asked Harris to respond to the GOP’s critique that she nor Biden have visited the Southern Border since they both assumed office.
Harris replied that she felt her meeting with Giammattei was more substantial “as opposed to grand gestures,” but perhaps this was just that.
She said addressing the root causes is one of the administration’s highest priorities, and that the two nations must root out corruption wherever it exists “in a way that is tangible and real.”
This points to the Biden administration’s own issues in understanding the driving forces of migration, because it does not wish to discuss its complicity. Without this, there won’t be “tangible and real” progress.
The term, “root causes,” ignores that the U.S. has played a central role in perpetuating some of these drivers of migration from the Northern Triangle.
In 1954, the U.S. planned a coup to overthrow Guatemala’s democratically-elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, on the premise of communism, and after a war spanning over three decades wiped out villages and displaced hundreds of thousands of people — predominantly indigenous Maya.
The “United States was intimately involved in equipping and training Guatemalan security forces that murdered thousands of civilians in the nation's civil war,” according to the Washington Post.
This sort of widespread trauma to a nation, just decades ago, cannot be expected to be fully recovered from in 2021.
The issue also lies within the corruption among Guatemala’s own leadership.
The New York Times reports questions remain over how Harris will ensure U.S. aid reaches those who need it most as she works with the Guatemalan government.
Congreso Guatemala has been known to target anti-corruption groups, and just recently it swore-in a judge accused of corruption on June 3.
Root causes are at the border, they’re in Central America, and they’re also at the U.S. Capitol. To overlook this is easier, and it is easier to make grand gestures veiled as diplomacy, as it takes responsibility away.
So far, the people who are faced with making these life-changing decisions are out of focus.
Harris will travel to Mexico on Tuesday, where she will meet with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. There, she is expected to deliver a similar message to the president, but will instead call on Mexico to affirm its resolve to curb the flow of migration through Mexico.