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 undocumented migrants hoping to reach the United States: “Do not come.”
Ms. Harris issued the warning during a trip that was an early yet pivotal test for a vice president currently tasked with the complex challenge of breaking a cycle of migration from Central America by investing in a region plagued by corruption, violence and poverty.
While President Biden campaigned on unwinding some of the Trump administration’s border restrictions, allowing migrants to apply for asylum at the U.S. border, Ms. Harris amplified the White House’s current stance that most of those who crossed the border would be turned away and would instead need to find legal pathways or protection closer to their home countries.
She did not shy away from brusque language when it came to discussing corruption with the Guatemalan president, Alejandro Giammattei, who has been criticized for having a political agenda and for persecuting officials who fight corruption.
“We will look to root out corruption wherever it exists,” Ms. Harris said, adding that the administration would support an anti-corruption unit in the attorney general’s office in Guatemala that has been the subject of criticism from Mr. Giammattei. “That has been one of our highest priorities in terms of the focus we have put here after the president asked me to take on this issue of focusing on this region.”
Ms. Harris, whose own aspirations to the presidency are clear, was tapped by Mr. Biden to invest in Central America to discourage the vulnerable from making the dangerous journey north. Mr. Biden has faced criticism from Republicans and some moderate Democrats in the early months of his term for the soaring number of crossings of unaccompanied minors at the U.S.-Mexico border.
But the Biden administration has continued to use a Trump-era rule to turn back most migrant adults, sparking backlash from human rights groups.
Rachel Schmidtke, the Latin America advocate for Refugees International, a pro-immigrant group, said in a statement Monday that the organization was concerned Ms. Harris’s remarks discouraging migrants from trying to cross to the border undermined their right to seek asylum in the United States.
The vice president’s top aides have sought to differentiate her role from the political land mine of managing the border, instead saying her focus is on working with foreign governments to bolster the Central American economy and create more opportunities for people who now see fleeing to the United States as their best option.
Ms. Harris announced new steps in the effort on Monday. The Biden administration will deploy homeland security officers to Guatemala’s northern and southern borders to train local officials — a tactic similar to one used by previous administrations to deter migration. The State and Justice Departments will also establish a task force to investigate corruption cases that have links to Guatemala and the United States, while also training Guatemalan prosecutors.
“We did have a very frank conversation about the importance of an independent judiciary,” Ms. Harris said. “We had a conversation about the importance of a strong civil society.”
For his part, Mr. Giammattei described the accusations against him as “misinformation.”
He also said that while meeting with Ms. Harris he once again requested the Biden administration temporarily exempt some Guatemalans from deportation by granting protections normally issued to those fleeing natural disasters or war, citing hurricanes that hit Central America last year. When he asked Ms. Harris about the subject in front of reporters, she did not directly respond.
The Biden administration also outlined an investment of $48 million in entrepreneurship programs, affordable housing and agricultural businesses in Guatemala, part of a four-year, $4 billion plan to invest in the region. Ms. Harris last month touted commitments from a dozen private companies, including Mastercard and Microsoft, to develop the economy in Central America.
But hanging over those programs are questions about how to ensure that U.S. aid benefits those who need it most, and not just contractors enlisted by the United States or Guatemalan officials.
Guatemala in 2019 expelled a United Nations-backed anti-corruption panel, known as Cicig, which worked alongside Guatemalan prosecutors to bring corruption cases but was also accused by conservatives in the country of having a political agenda.
Ricardo Zúñiga, Mr. Biden’s special envoy to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, described such independent anti-corruption panels as “very successful efforts.” But Ms. Harris’s team stopped short of saying they believed Guatemala needed an independent entity to investigate corruption.
“The point is that there’s not one specific model,” Mr. Zúñiga said. “The point is to provide support to the people within the government, or within the institutions, judicial institutions, mainly, who have the will and the capacity to drive those cases forward.”
Ms. Harris made a point in her opening remarks to focus on encouraging would-be migrants to stay closer to home while applying for permission to enter the United States and waiting to receive replies. Days earlier, her top aides announced plans to establish a new center in Guatemala where people can learn about obtaining asylum protections or refugee status while still in Central America, rather than traveling to the U.S. border.
“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. “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.”
In Chex Abajo, a mountainside village 155 miles away from Guatemala City, where Ms. Harris spoke, Nicolás Ajanel Juárez, said his community is unable to secure such necessities, despite promises made by various American presidents.
The village of Indigenous corn farmers embodies the daunting task facing the vice president. Mr. Juárez, a member of the local leadership, said many of the 600 residents watched as their homes were blown away in twin hurricanes. Profits from corn crops are no longer reliable as climate change has extended the dry season.
Many families in the village rely on remittances from relatives in the United States. Those whose standard of living has been raised by U.S. wages have larger homes made of cement and iron, marked with stars and American flags. The main road in the village is called “Ohio” because of the number of migrants who have found work landscaping in that state.
Mr. Juárez, who crossed the border three times in the last two decades, said that until the community members have stable work migration to the United States will continue.
“It would be best if help can come directly instead of through government because that’s where it gets lost,” Mr. Juárez said against music playing for a nearby ceremony memorializing a member of the community who crossed into the United States and died two years ago. “Politicians don’t know because they don’t come here, to see with their own eyes the needs of the people.”
After meeting with Mr. Giammattei, Ms. Harris met with a group of women who have organized development programs for Indigenous communities, or training for those looking to gain business skills.
But before that, she acknowledged the symbolic weight of being the first female vice president, and of making Guatemala her first foreign destination in that office. While a group of protesters holding signs opposing Ms. Harris’s visit stood near one entrance of the military airport, a line of families, many of them women, stood along another fence hoping to catch a glimpse of Air Force II as it landed in Guatemala.
“To the extent I can have any impact based on my gender and the fact I am the first, I welcome that,” Ms. Harris said, adding, “You may be the first to do it, but make sure you’re not the last.”
Pedro Pablo Solares contributed reporting from Guatemala City.