All she has to do with her turn at bat is take on the Northern Triangle countries of Central America and, with one big swing, stem the surge of migrants to the southern border. It is a task that three U.S. presidents — George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump — have tried and failed at.
There’s no telling what Harris will accomplish with this assignment. Her efforts, however, are likely to have an impact in the Western Hemisphere and, most certainly, on her political future.
We have a hint of the latter.
The Republican frat house, stirred up by Reps. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Steve Scalise (La.) and Jim Jordan (Ohio) and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, has become a source of boos and taunts of the “border czar” even before Harris reaches the batter’s box. GOP and right-wing media harassment will only increase. The piling on, however, is a minor distraction, given what’s really on the line for the countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, as well as for the Biden administration.
Harris, it is said, has been prepping for a moment like this. Given the magnitude of the challenge, she’s going to need all the knowledge she can muster about the region, including a good sense of the dimension of the challenges that have exasperated the United States for decades.
Harris said last week that she wants her first overseas trip to be to the Northern Triangle. But before Air Force Two lifts off, she ought to have clear in her mind how the United States became rooted in the turbulence of Central America.
The vice president may well face a steep learning curve. I, however, humbly suggest that Harris gather together all of the self-styled National Security Council, State Department and Agency for International Development experts on the region, and demand an answer to one simple question: What in the hell happened to all the money?
To explain: It’s no mystery why people risk their lives fleeing the Northern Triangle for the United States. The reasons have been documented and discussed for years: violence, poverty and unemployment, natural disasters and poor governance. And the United States has done more in response than hand-wringing and haranguing the governments. Money, lots of it, has been appropriated by Congress and spent by U.S. agencies on economic growth and social welfare programs in Central America. The aim has been to improve living conditions so that people would remain in the region rather than come here.
Here are examples of various U.S. actions:
- Congress appropriated more than $3.6 billion to fund a Strategy for Engagement in Central America program between 2016 and 2021. The money was supposed to strengthen rule of law, improve the administration of justice, promote economic prosperity, prevent violence and combat gangs, and empower youth and women.
- In fiscal 2021 alone, U.S. funding amounted to $505.9 million.
- Between 2013 and 2018, The U.S. Agriculture Department allocated $407 million to Central America to provide school meals, nutritional programs for women, infants and children, and to train and provide technical assistance to improve agricultural productivity.
- The Obama administration asked for money to help the region in fiscal 2016, and Congress appropriated $750 million, requiring the countries to improve border security, combat corruption and address human rights concerns.
What happened to it all?
People — families and children, many unaccompanied — are still making the risky journey north. The desire for economic opportunity, unified families and freedom from violence are as strong a motive as 10 years ago.
Harris ought not allow the experts to leave the room until she can, with her well-known prosecutorial approach, determine what U.S. assistance has contributed to the Northern Triangle. What has failed — and why?
Harris’s advisers had better come up with some good answers. Biden has said he wants to send $4 billion to the Northern Triangle region to (drum roll, please) quash violence, curb corruption, reduce poverty and expand economic opportunities.
Harris must get a good fix on the U.S. dollars spent in those Central American countries thus far.
Then, and only then, will the vice president be in a position to undertake her mission with a grounding in facts and an understanding of the region, and then return to Washington with a clear-eyed view of what a future Biden administration policy should and should not look like south of the border.
Short of that, the vice president is going to get called out on strikes.