- The Washington Times - Monday, March 22, 2021

Under fire to contain a surge of migrants, the Biden administration on Monday deployed top officials on a trip to Mexico and Guatemala to prod foreign leaders about confronting the “root causes” of the untenable situation at the U.S. southern border.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended the administration’s response to the surge and said they’re already finding alternate means to deliver the message “don’t come,” like Spanish-language radio ads, animated programming and social media targeting.

“Part of our objective … was that we need to work in partnership with these countries to address the root causes in their countries, to convey clearly and systematically that this is not the time to travel,” Ms. Psaki told reporters. 

Roberta Jacobson, the administration’s coordinator for the southwestern border and a former ambassador to Mexico, and Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council’s senior director for the Western Hemisphere, were set to leave for Mexico on Monday to meet with top Mexican officials, including Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard Casaubon.

Mr. Gonzalez will then continue on to Guatemala, where he will be joined by Ricardo Zuniga, who the State Department announced Monday will serve as special envoy for the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

In Guatemala, there are planned meetings with President Alejandro Giammattei and Foreign Minister Pedro Brolo, among other officials.

A key part of the trip is trying to address “root causes” of “irregular migration” like lack of economic opportunities, foreign corruption, violence, and extreme weather like hurricanes, according to senior administration officials.

A long-term goal is to address those underlying issues to “break the cycle of desperation and provide hope for families who clearly would prefer to stay in their countries and provide a better future for their children,” one official said.

President Biden himself said over the weekend that more can be done to hammer home his administration’s message that now is not the time for migrants to try to enter the U.S.

Ms. Psaki said the administration has placed thousands of radio ads in Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and has worked with Facebook and Instagram to target would-be migrants’ social media streams.

“So each country is taking different approaches,” she said.

Ms. Psaki also said there is “no question” that additional funding is needed to address the root causes of migration.

The Biden administration has laid out a $4 billion aid package over four years to benefit Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, said the $4 billion is “probably” a reasonable figure but that the U.S. also needs to get more help on the asylum process and good government commitments out of the notoriously corrupt countries.

Mr. Portman, who recently traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border himself, said migrant men told him they heard Mr. Biden’s “don’t come” message but decided to try anyway because they could earn 10 times as much money in the United States compared to back home.

“I don’t think it’s humane to encourage kids to make this treacherous journey north and then have to live in these kinds of conditions, so we need to change course,” Mr. Portman, the top Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Ms. Psaki said she didn’t have any specifics on possible strings attached to the aid, pointing out that it would have to flow through Congress.

“Obviously addressing issues like corruption, violence in the region and in these countries is something that is often raised with the government,” she said.

Since former President Donald Trump left office, officials in Mexico and Guatemala have struggled to prevent migrants from moving through their countries to the U.S. border. At least one caravan of Honduran migrants was halted in Guatemala right before Mr. Biden was sworn into office.

On Friday, Mexican authorities found 329 Guatemalans and Hondurans, including 114 unaccompanied minors, in three trailer trucks near the border with Guatemala, Reuters reported.

Previewing the trip this week, a senior administration official described the border surge as stemming from a “cyclical regional issue” — even as migrants themselves cite the Biden administration’s immigration policies as a prime reason for trying to make the journey.

“Rebuilding our broken system will take time and it will take the whole-of-government effort President Biden has directed,” an official said. “No one, especially children and families with young children, should make the dangerous trip to try and enter the U.S. in an irregular fashion. The border is not open.” 

A problem for the Biden administration is that solving underlying issues tied to violence and corruption won’t necessarily slow migrants’ attempts to leave their home countries and enter the U.S.

In addition to better economic opportunities, many of the would-be migrants’ families are already in the United States — yet another incentive that wouldn’t be fixed by improved conditions in their home countries.

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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