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Harris wraps up a Latin America trip that featured sharp words to would-be immigrants

Vice President Kamala D. Harris on June 8 said it's "shortsighted" to not focus on the root causes of migration from Central America to the U.S. (Video: The Washington Post)

MEXICO CITY — In Guatemala, Vice President Harris spoke of the bonds between the nations of the Western hemisphere and offered millions in aid and investment. In Mexico, she stressed the "interdependence and interconnection" between the United States and its neighbor to the south.

But her tone was far more stern toward potential migrants mulling a trip to the U.S. border. “Do not come,” she instructed during a news conference with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei. “Do not come. You will be turned back.” And she warned Tuesday in Mexico, “It can be a very treacherous and dangerous trek.”

The strong words were a nod to the shifting political ground facing the Biden administration as Harris concluded a trip aimed at tackling the root causes of migration. The recent tough tone of Harris and other Biden officials presented a contrast with the emphasis of Biden’s campaign, which vowed a humane, gentler approach.

That’s in part because Republican critics have scored political points by blaming the administration for a spike in people trying to cross America’s southern border. And Harris’s trip through Latin America, the first international foray of her tenure, was repeatedly overshadowed by questions about why she did not visit America’s southern border, where the problems are most evident.

Harris said Tuesday that she would visit the border at some point during her vice presidency, while stressing that her portfolio is to tackle the root causes of migration in the countries of origin.

Critics have repeatedly sought to tie Harris to the border crisis by highlighting her sometimes rocky efforts to explain why she hasn’t gone there, including comments on NBC on Tuesday that she had not visited Europe as vice president, either.

During the campaign, Biden and Harris decried former president Donald Trump’s immigration policies in humanitarian and moral terms. They said his policy of family separation was particularly cruel, decried his efforts to build a border wall and vowed to have an immigration policy that upheld America’s values.

Long before the election, then-Sen. Kamala D. Harris engaged in fiery televised exchanges with Trump’s homeland security secretaries, John Kelly and Kirstjen Nielsen, calling for Nielsen’s resignation over Trump’s family separation policy.

“The government should be in the business of keeping families together, not tearing them apart,” Harris said in 2018. “The government should have a commitment to transparency and accountability. Under Secretary Nielsen’s tenure, the Department of Homeland Security has a track record of neither.”

But the early days of Biden’s administration were met with thousands of Latin Americans heading toward the U.S. border, including record numbers of unaccompanied children and teens. Republicans were quick to blame what they said were White House signals that the border was wide open.

The attacks had an impact. While Biden scored high marks on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, immigration emerged as a vulnerability. And while the administration has not responded with major policy changes, the emphasis and tone of its rhetoric has shifted.

In March, Biden directed Harris to try to address the underlying causes of migration — including poverty, violence, climate change and government corruption — that caused so many people to flee their home countries to begin with. It was the first major issue in her vice-presidential portfolio, and it turned her into a lightning rod for criticism of Biden’s border policies.

Since Biden took office, the number of migrants taken into custody by U.S. agents each month has skyrocketed to the highest levels in 20 years. Some of the unaccompanied minors have arrived with the phone numbers of relatives living in the U.S. written on their arms, an attempt to capitalize on the Biden administration’s decision to not turn away asylum-seeking minors.

Giammattei, the Guatemalan president Harris met with Monday, is among those saying that Biden’s policies have led to increased migration from his country.

“I believe that in the first few weeks of the Biden administration, messages were confusing. They were compassionate messages that were understood by people in our country, especially the coyotes, to tell families, ‘We’ll take the children,’ ” Giammattei told MSNBC in April.

Giammattei reiterated some of those claims during a news conference with Harris, who has spent both days of her trip contending with similar questions about policies at the southern border, despite her repeated efforts to steer the conversation toward the difficult conditions in countries like Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

“I want to be very clear that the problem at the border, in large part if not entirely, stems from the problems in these countries,” she said Tuesday. “I cannot say it enough. Most people don’t want to leave home, and when they do, it is usually for one of two reasons: Either they are fleeing harm, or to stay home means that they cannot satisfy the basic needs to sustain and take care of their families.”

But her efforts to hammer home that message were hindered by an exchange with NBC’s Lester Holt on Monday, when she appeared frustrated by Holt’s repeated questioning about why she had come to Mexico but had not visited the border.

“At some point, you know, we are going to the border,” Harris said. “We’ve been to the border. So this whole thing about the border — we’ve been to the border. We’ve been to the border.”

Holt interjected that she hadn’t been to the border since becoming vice president.

“And I haven’t been to Europe,” she said. “And I mean, I don’t understand the point that you’re making. I’m not discounting the importance of the border.”

Some Republicans circulated the back and forth, believing that it showed Harris on the defensive on an issue that would resonate with voters. Republicans have also gleefully called Harris the administration’s “border czar,” a title she rejects.

Some Democrats, meanwhile, were unhappy with Harris’s tough words to would-be migrants telling them not to come, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

“This is disappointing to see,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “First, seeking asylum at any US border is a 100% legal method of arrival. Second, the US spent decades contributing to regime change and destabilization in Latin America. We can’t help set someone’s house on fire and then blame them for fleeing.”

And Texas Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar has encouraged Harris to visit the border.

On Tuesday, asked again why she wasn’t doing so, she suggested it would be superficial to ignore the problems in Northern Triangle countries — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — that are prompting people to flee.

“You can’t say you care about the border without caring about the root causes,” she said, adding, “It would be very easy to say, ‘We’ll travel to one place and therefore it’s solved.’ I don’t think anybody thinks that would be the solution.”

Harris added that she had visited the border as a senator from California.

Still, others in the administration also faced questions about Harris’s decision not to visit the border.

“I expect, at some time, she may go to the border,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during the daily White House news briefing. “But as you know, what her focus has been, what the assignment is, specifically, is to work with leaders in the Northern Triangle. She’s on a trip doing exactly that, exactly what the president asked her to do.”

From the beginning, the White House has stressed that Harris’s role would be diplomatic, not managerial, and would resemble the role Biden played when he was Barack Obama’s vice president.

During this week’s two-day trip, Harris made a series of announcements designed to show that progress was being made in easing the corruption and economic struggles of the Northern Triangle countries.

She announced that the Justice Department would create an anti-corruption task force to help prosecute cases linked to the Northern Triangle and confiscate the assets of offenders. The U.S. will also 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.

Additionally, Guatemala will also 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 and the Biden administration have stressed that U.S. aid cannot tackle the problem alone and have sought to rally U.S. businesses to invest in Northern Triangle countries. During the trip, Harris took a hard line against corruption — while standing next to Giammattei, who has been accused of being part of his country’s corruption problem — saying that graft stops regular citizens from benefiting from any aid and deters businesses from investing.

But like her critics, the vice president said she recognized the problems that spur immigration to the U.S. would not be resolve anytime soon, saying Tuesday, “The issue of root causes is not going to be solved in one trip that took two days.”