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Harris-led campaign to stem migration from Central America faces steep challenges

Vice President Harris takes notes as she speaks via videoconference with Guatemala's President Alejandro Giammattei on April 26.
Vice President Harris takes notes as she speaks via videoconference with Guatemala's President Alejandro Giammattei on April 26. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Vice President Harris has kicked off U.S. efforts to deter people from leaving Central America’s “Northern Triangle” countries through programs designed to create more economic and political stability in the region.

Facing a surge of illegal crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Biden administration has said it is seeking to demonstrate a commitment to improving conditions in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras as part of an effort to reduce the flow.

But similar campaigns under previous administrations have failed to make meaningful progress, leading to cyclical spikes at the border since 2014. And high-level corruption among government officials has complicated U.S. efforts to negotiate with leaders who have little political will for reform.

“The overarching challenge is, they [the Biden administration] really want to change the conditions on the ground that are pushing people to leave, and some of that requires really fundamental changes to how governance and institutions work in these countries,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. “And that’s a hard thing for the U.S. government to do.”

As the Biden-Harris administration hits their 100-day mark, The Post’s Sean Sullivan and a presidential historian analyze how Vice President Harris is doing. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Harris is tasked with leading U.S. negotiations on migration, taking on a role that Biden had under President Barack Obama and one that carries significant political perils. This week, she met virtually with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and community leaders. She is scheduled to meet with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador virtually on May 7 and is expected to travel to the region as early as June.

The White House has yet to release a detailed plan for her diplomatic efforts, but Harris has pointed to Biden’s efforts under Obama as a model, focusing on the “root causes” of migration, including corruption, poverty and violence.

“Most people don’t want to leave home,” Harris said during a recent meeting with experts, describing one of her guiding theories. “And when they do, it is usually for one of two reasons, or a combination of the two: They are fleeing some harm, or to remain home is to remain in a position where there is no opportunity to meet essential needs.”

President Biden selected Vice President Harris on March 24 to lead the administration’s efforts stemming flow of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico southern border. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

By some metrics, conditions have worsened since the Obama years. Leaders in the three countries face allegations of corruption or have taken anti-democratic actions that have fueled political instability. Anti-corruption programs that the United States once promoted have mostly disbanded, and organized crime has proliferated. Most recently, hurricanes and the coronavirus pandemic have devastated their economies.

“They want to change the perception from hopelessness to opportunity, and do enough in a visible enough way that people get the sense that their country is going to turn around — without seeming like they’re completely intervening. It’s a fine line,” Selee said.

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During a meeting with Giammattei, Harris announced $310 million in additional U.S. humanitarian relief and food insecurity support for the Northern Triangle countries.

But many migration experts question the entire premise of deterring migration through development assistance, arguing that, in the short term, economic growth leads to more migration, as more people are able to afford the journey. Even security gains don’t always lead to a decrease in migration: In Honduras, the homicide rate was halved between 2012 and 2019, and yet the exodus of Hondurans increased.

Many of the efforts that began around 2014 failed to sustain momentum toward the end of the Obama administration and through the Trump years, experts say.

For example, the $1 billion aid program that Biden negotiated as vice president lacked coordination on the ground and produced mixed results, according to the nonpartisan Wilson Center’s 2020 report.

“As you look back on it, there was a bit of a kitchen sink approach” during the Obama years, said Eric Olson, one of the lead authors of the report.

The Trump administration questioned the effectiveness of aid programs in the region and threatened to cut or reallocate them. And two key anticorruption agencies in Guatemala and Honduras, which were the centerpieces of U.S. anticorruption efforts in those countries, were dismantled as Trump administration officials wavered in their support of the agencies, according to the Wilson Center’s report.

“We haven’t yet dealt with the underlying issues. We keep dealing with it as an emergency,” Olson said. “The enormous diplomatic challenge is to respond appropriately to the emergency without losing sight of the long-term goal or vision or outcome that we want, and clearly the Central American people want.”

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The Biden administration’s 2022 budget request includes $861 million for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to help stem migration, part of a four-year, $4 billion commitment to address the factors that prompt migration from Central America.

“What we’re doing right now is to take stock of what has worked and what hasn’t,” said Mileydi Guilarte, deputy assistant administrator in USAID’s Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Guilarte said that anti-corruption programs will be prioritized more than they were previously, but that the United States is still trying to sort through what those programs will look like, and what kind of buy-in it will get from Central American governments.

“We can’t just go in and set up our own corruption task force,” she said. “It really has to come from within.”

But some U.S. officials worry that because the United States has little faith in Northern Triangle governments, it will rely on foreign NGOs to implement aid programs rather than the governments themselves, which would make it difficult for the programs to continue once the money runs out — one of the problems the Obama administration encountered.

The United States is also trying to find ways to provide humanitarian support in parts of the region that are still recovering from two hurricanes last year.

But it’s unclear whether that kind of short-term assistance will deter many people from migrating. In recent years, smuggling networks have grown, along with the ability of would-be migrants to borrow vast amounts of money to pay smugglers. For many rural Hondurans and Guatemalans, migration is a far more accessible option than ever before.

Biden — like Trump — has asked Mexico to crack down on migrants passing through the country on their way to the U.S. border. But even as Mexican authorities have increased apprehensions, thousands of Central Americans now reach the border each week, according to the latest data from early April.

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A key challenge for the Biden administration is how to engage with leaders in the three countries to root out corruption, given their roles in enabling those conditions, experts say.

The Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernández, has been implicated in drug trafficking by the Department of Justice. Prosecutors have detailed evidence against him in multiple indictments, including one against his brother, Tony, who was convicted in a Manhattan federal court in 2019 of cocaine trafficking. Juan Orlando Hernández denies the allegations against him.

El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele, who is popular in his country, has leveraged his position to take autocratic steps, including attempting a coup against the legislative assembly.

U.S. negotiations have begun with Guatemala. But under Giammattei, independent prosecutors tasked with investigating corruption have been under attack.

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Ricardo Zúñiga, who began his role as Biden’s special envoy to the Northern Triangle in March, has stressed the need for the United States to work with civil society groups that are focused on anti-corruption and transparency.

The United States will aim to provide political cover and technical assistance for those groups, including giving protection to domestic prosecutors and local journalists investigating corruption and training for judges to rule on gender-based violence, he recently said in a media briefing.

U.S. officials are also considering a regional task force that would involve the Justice Department, State Department and other U.S. agencies to help fight corruption and support prosecutors and investigators, Zúñiga said.

On Monday, hours before Harris was set to meet virtually with Giammattei, the State Department announced sanctions on a top Guatemalan official over alleged corruption. Zúñiga said more sanctions were possible.

“Our commitment has to be not just to deal with the acute drivers of migration, but really dealing with the short-, medium- and long-term problems if we want to see systemic and sustainable change, which, really, that’s our objective,” Zúñiga said.