In Guatemala, Harris Tells Undocumented to Stay Away From U.S. Border

In her first foreign trip as vice president, Kamala Harris promoted economic development and anti-corruption efforts, trying to stem the northward flow of migrants.

GUATEMALA CITY — During her first foreign trip as vice president, Kamala Harris said the United States would bolster investigations into corruption and human trafficking in Guatemala, while also delivering a clear, blunt message to undocumented migrants hoping to reach the United States: “Do not come.”

Ms. Harris issued the warning during a trip that was an early yet pivotal test for a vice president currently tasked with the complex challenge of breaking a cycle of migration from Central America by investing in a region plagued by corruption, violence and poverty.

While President Biden campaigned on unwinding some of the Trump administration’s border restrictions, allowing migrants to apply for asylum at the U.S. border, Ms. Harris amplified the White House’s current stance that most of those who crossed the border would be turned away and would instead need to find legal pathways or protection closer to their home countries.

She did not shy away from brusque language when it came to discussing corruption with the Guatemalan president, Alejandro Giammattei, who has been criticized for having a political agenda and for persecuting officials who fight corruption.

“We will look to root out corruption wherever it exists,” Ms. Harris said, adding that the administration would support an anti-corruption unit in the attorney general’s office in Guatemala that has been the subject of criticism from Mr. Giammattei. “That has been one of our highest priorities in terms of the focus we have put here after the president asked me to take on this issue of focusing on this region.”

Ms. Harris, whose own aspirations to the presidency are clear, was tapped by Mr. Biden to invest in Central America to discourage the vulnerable from making the dangerous journey north. Mr. Biden has faced criticism from Republicans and some moderate Democrats in the early months of his term for the soaring number of crossings of unaccompanied minors at the U.S.-Mexico border.

But the Biden administration has continued to use a Trump-era rule to turn back most migrant adults, sparking backlash from human rights groups.

Rachel Schmidtke, the Latin America advocate for Refugees International, a pro-immigrant group, said in a statement Monday that the organization was concerned Ms. Harris’s remarks discouraging migrants from trying to cross to the border undermined their right to seek asylum in the United States.

The vice president’s top aides have sought to differentiate her role from the political land mine of managing the border, instead saying her focus is on working with foreign governments to bolster the Central American economy and create more opportunities for people who now see fleeing to the United States as their best option.

Ms. Harris announced new steps in the effort on Monday. The Biden administration will deploy homeland security officers to Guatemala’s northern and southern borders to train local officials — a tactic similar to one used by previous administrations to deter migration. The State and Justice Departments will also establish a task force to investigate corruption cases that have links to Guatemala and the United States, while also training Guatemalan prosecutors.

“We did have a very frank conversation about the importance of an independent judiciary,” Ms. Harris said. “We had a conversation about the importance of a strong civil society.”

He also said that while meeting with Ms. Harris he once again requested the Biden administration temporarily exempt some Guatemalans from deportation by granting protections normally issued to those fleeing natural disasters or war, citing hurricanes that hit Central America last year. When he asked Ms. Harris about the subject in front of reporters, she did not directly respond.

The Biden administration also outlined an investment of $48 million in entrepreneurship programs, affordable housing and agricultural businesses in Guatemala, part of a four-year, $4 billion plan to invest in the region. Ms. Harris last month touted commitments from a dozen private companies, including Mastercard and Microsoft, to develop the economy in Central America.

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Zolan Kanno-Youngs