Vice President Kamala Harris agreed Monday with Guatemala’s president on new spending by Washington aimed at discouraging illegal migration to the U.S., and she dismissed Republicans’ calls for her to visit the southern border, saying it would be an insignificant “grand gesture.”
On her first trip abroad as vice president, Ms. Harris said she was focused on addressing the root causes of illegal migration from Central America and won’t bother with what she considers a photo-op at the southern U.S. border.
“On the issue of Republicans’ political attacks, or criticism, or even concerns, the reason I’m here in Guatemala as my first trip as vice president in the United States is because this is one of our highest priorities,” Ms. Harris said.
“I came here to be here on the ground, to speak with the leader of this nation around what we can do in a way that is significant, is tangible, and has real results. And I will continue to be focused on that kind of work, as opposed to grand gestures,” she said.
Top Republicans are criticizing Ms. Harris, who’s been tapped by President Biden to address the recent surge in illegal migration, for failing to visit with Border Patrol agents and others in law enforcement at the border. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana has even displayed a milk carton bearing a photo of the vice president as “missing” on the issue.
Former President Donald Trump said Monday that Ms. Harris or other top Biden officials should be visiting the U.S. southern border, adding that he might do so soon to show solidarity with the border patrol agents.
“It’s disgraceful that nobody’s been there from the administration,” Mr. Trump said on Fox Business Network. “It’s totally open. I personally think it’s incompetence.”
At a press conference with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, Ms. Harris urged Central Americans not to make the perilous journey to the U.S.
“Do not come,” she said. “The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border. There are legal methods by which migration can and should occur. But we, as one of our priorities, will discourage illegal migration. I believe if you come to our border, you will be turned back.”
She called on Guatemalans to “discourage our friends, our neighbors, our family members, from embarking on what is otherwise an extremely dangerous journey.”
But the difficulty of Ms. Harris’ mission was reinforced by Mr. Giammattei, who asked the vice president in their private talks not only to give “temporary protected status” to hundreds of thousand of Guatemalans who are in the U.S. illegally, but also to train them in personal finance and entrepreneurship.
“We need [the U.S.] to help us stop deportations for some time,” Mr. Giammattei said. “We asked the U.S. government for a TPS [designation] so we can begin to focus on development.”
He said the Guatemalan government wants the Biden administration to help the undocumented immigrants “not only to make money and send it [home], but also to give them financial literacy so they can establish and grow companies and enterprises here in Guatemala, so they can come back to this country to create opportunities with what we have learned abroad.”
His comments reflected the extent to which the economy in Guatemala, as well as Honduras and El Salvador, is dependent on the cash remittances from undocumented immigrants working in the U.S.
Asked by a U.S. reporter whether his administration is corrupt and therefore is contributing to the migration problem, Mr. Giammattei grew defiant at the press conference.
“How many cases of corruption have I been accused of?” he asked the journalist. “I can give you the answer to that — zero.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed “deep concern” to his Guatemalan counterpart last week about efforts to abolish an anti-corruption unit in the country’s attorney general’s office.
Ms. Harris said she had a “very frank, very candid” discussion with Mr. Giammattei about corruption, violence and other issues.
She said they agreed on three steps to address causes of migration, including the creation of an anti-corruption task force coordinated by the U.S. departments of State, Justice and Treasury to train local law enforcement officials in Guatemala and support the country’s prosecutors.
They also agreed to create a task force to prevent smuggling and human trafficking, and to launch a “young women’s empowerment initiative” to improve conditions in Guatemala for women and girls.
The $40 million initiative on women and girls will be funded by USAID.
The agency also is pledging $48 million in public and private economic aid that will be spent in part, the White House said, “on renewable energy, climate resilience, health, water and sanitation, telemedicine, agriculture,[financial] tech, and education” in Guatemala.
Ms. Harris said Guatemala must provide its citizens with a sense of hope if it wants to limit their emigration to the U.S.
“Hope does not exist by itself,” she said. “It must be coupled with relationships of trust, it must be coupled with tangible outcomes in terms of what we do as leaders to convince people that there is a reason to be hopeful about their future.”