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Harris arrives in Guatemala to tackle migration causes

Vice President Harris and Guatemalan Foreign Minister Pedro Brolo after her arrival Monday in Guatemala for her first foreign trip. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

GUATEMALA CITY — Vice President Harris arrived at her first summit here with the promise of millions of dollars in American aid and investment, pledges she said would give Guatemalans "hope that help was on the way" and dissuade potential migrants from trying to cross into the United States.

But she also came with a "frank and open" admonition for President Alejandro Giammattei, telling him his government needed to mount an all-out effort to fight corruption if it hopes to improve life for millions of Guatemalans and stem the flow of migrants to the U.S. border.

"If we are truly to have a fight for democracies, especially in a world where they are increasingly under attack, one central agreement must be to fight corruption," Harris told U.S. and Guatemalan journalists at the presidential palace. "It minimizes the ability of any country to maximize its natural resources to help and support the citizenry."

Vice President Harris met with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei on June 7 to discuss efforts to bolster the local economy and deter migration. (Video: The Washington Post)

But her words came moments before Giammattei, standing next to Harris, defended himself from critics who say he is part of the country's corruption problem. That was emblematic of the deep-rooted issues facing Harris as she becomes the latest American politician trying to help solve the problems that have prompted numerous Guatemalans to embark on a perilous search for a better life elsewhere.

Harris's words and actions in Guatemala were closely watched by opponents and allies alike, as they will be again in Mexico on Tuesday. In March, President Biden tasked Harris with tackling the root causes of migration to the southern border, an assignment that will help define the barrier-breaking tenure of the nation's first female vice president.

For Democrats, Harris, 56, is widely seen as an heir apparent to Biden. As the first female vice president and the first person of Black and Indian descent to ascend to the office, she is a symbol of the diverse coalition that Democrats hope will power the party in the 21st century.

But the vice president has relatively little foreign policy experience compared with Biden, and the three-day trip to Guatemala and Mexico offers an opportunity for Harris to showcase herself as an emissary for U.S. interests and values on the international stage.

Republicans have sought to hammer Harris’s immigration portfolio as a weak point in the Biden administration. Prominent Republicans — some with presidential aspirations of their own — have referred to Harris as Biden’s “border czar,” an effort to ding the current administration and hobble a potential future opponent at the same time.

In her first international trip, she sought to thread the needle between working to restore the battered U.S. relationship with Guatemala and taking a hard stance against the corruption that critics see reflected in Giammattei’s record.

Giammattei picked his chief of staff to fill one of the five vacancies on the country's Supreme Court, sparking outcry that he was interfering with an independent judiciary. And after Gloria Porras, a judge with a reputation for fighting graft, won a second term, the Congress controlled by Giammattei's party refused to seat her.

Giammattei defended himself from the podium Monday, saying that he had been charged in zero cases and that social media narratives distort facts to assert that all politicians are criminals.

Harris stood stone-faced as he talked but later stressed that companies she has talked to about deepening their investment in Guatemala have said they want to be certain their money is "going to the people who need that support, and not to corrupt officials."

A dozen U.S. companies have signed on to support inclusive economic development in the Northern Triangle countries — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — and Harris on Monday announced a number of other efforts to help Guatemalans.

The Justice Department will create an anti-corruption task force that will help prosecute cases linked to the Northern Triangle and confiscate the assets of offenders. The U.S. Agency for International Development will launch a Young Women’s Empowerment Initiative to generate more opportunities, especially for those from Indigenous communities.

And the United States will invest $48 million to support entrepreneurship and innovation in Guatemala, as well as affordable housing and agriculture. The Biden administration has already pledged $310 million in regional humanitarian aid and has a $4 billion plan to boost development in the region.

Beyond that, Guatemala is set to receive 500,000 coronavirus vaccine doses with a promise of more to come as part of a U.S. allocation to countries in the Western hemisphere.

Harris’s aides framed her trip as part of the administration’s larger efforts to restore America’s standing as a world leader after the Trump era. On Wednesday, Biden is scheduled to travel to the United Kingdom for a meeting with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, then head to a series of gatherings of international alliances — the Group of Seven, NATO and the European Union.

Also on Monday, Attorney General Merrick Garland ordered the creation of a joint task force of the Justice and Homeland Security departments to combat human smuggling through Northern Triangle countries and Mexico. The networks, Garland said in a statement, “profit from the exploitation of migrants and routinely expose them to violence, injury, and death.”

Harris coupled the new initiatives with an unequivocal warning to anyone looking to migrate illegally to the United States.

"Do not come. Do not come," she said. "The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border. . . . I believe if you come to our border, you will be turned back. So let's discourage our friends or family members or neighbors from embarking on what is an extremely dangerous journey, and in which the only people who benefit are coyotes," referring to smugglers.

Watch: Harris tells migrants, ‘You will be turned back’

It remains to be seen whether Guatemalans grappling with abject poverty will heed her advice, particularly when administration officials acknowledge that it may take years or even decades for the U.S. development efforts to bear fruit. Many other initiatives over the years have largely failed to dissuade migrants from making the perilous 2,000-mile journey to the U.S. border.

The United States has long crafted aid programs in Guatemala with the goal of deterring migration. There were efforts to help coffee farmers improve their yields. There were vocational schools, pointedly called the “Stay Here Centers.” Through it all, the flow of migrants continued.

Since 2019, about 400,000 Guatemalans have been apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, more than 2 percent of the country’s population. The reasons are not hard to discern; nearly half of the nation’s 19 million people live below the poverty line.

On Monday, Harris met with the Guatemalan president a half-mile from the largest slum in Central America, a shantytown called La Limonada, where between 60,000 and 100,000 people live on pennies a day. On the roads leading to the national palace, women dressed as clowns juggled in the middle of the street, hoping drivers at stoplights would proffer tips. Often, a child was strapped onto the women’s backs or sleeping against a building nearby.

The journey to the U.S. border is risky, but once there, migrants working in even some of the lowest-paying jobs America has to offer can increase their salary many times over. Most Guatemalan farmers make about a dollar an hour in the country’s western highlands. In contrast, Guatemalan immigrants to South Florida can land a job in landscaping or construction that starts at more than $12 an hour.

“The income gains for labor migrants from the Northern Triangle are life-transforming,” said Michael Clemens, a migration expert at the Center for Global Development. “Guatemalan seasonal workers who come on H-2B visas to plant trees for U.S. forestry operations typically earn about 16 times what they could earn in Guatemala.”

The other Northern Triangle countries are not as impoverished, but government corruption and organized crime, sometimes working in tandem, nonetheless erode progress and stymie residents’ efforts to build better lives. As a result, the countries have hemorrhaged people in recent years.

That produces the dilemma that has vexed U.S. policymakers for years — how to extend a humane reception to desperate people without creating a chaotic and lawless situation in the United States. President Donald Trump gained enormous political momentum by targeting immigrants here illegally, and Biden has struggled to reverse that trend without inviting a hard-to-control influx.

Harris’s trip is part of that effort, but Monday’s events showed how hard it is likely to be.

Genier Hernandez, head of the local coffee cooperative in the Guatemalan municipality of Hoja Blanca, said he has watched as scores of young people have given up on their families’ coffee fields over the past year and left for the United States.

Major U.S. coffee producers, including Starbucks, purchase their beans from the region, but farmers complain that the low prices do not cover their costs of production. “The young people don’t see opportunity here,” Hernandez said.

And many Guatemalans do not have to look far to see the economic benefit of those who successfully cross the U.S. border. The Guatemalan countryside is dotted with multistory homes that have been built with money earned in the United States, often in the style of the U.S. suburbs where migrants now work.

Adelma, a 36-year-old Guatemalan woman originally from the northern Quiché area, moved from her rural village to the country’s capital more than a decade ago, finding a job at a factory that produces clothes for brands such as Target and Aeropostale. Her income increased to about $400 per month.

Adelma, who asked that her last name not be used, has four siblings living in the United States and, based on their experience, says she could quadruple her salary if she joined them.

She had seen on the TV news that Harris was coming to the country to urge Guatemalans to stay put but was undeterred. “I can help my family a lot more from there than I can from here,” she said.

She plans to leave for America next month.

Matt Zapotosky in Washington contributed to this report.