GUATEMALA CITY — During her first foreign trip as vice president, Kamala Harris detailed efforts to combat trafficking and corruption in Guatemala in order to deter increasing migration that has emerged as one of the more politically contentious issues of the Biden administration.
The trip is an early yet pivotal test for a vice president with clear aspirations for higher office who is currently tasked with the complex challenge of breaking a cycle of migration from a region that has been plagued by corruption.
Ms. Harris met with President Alejandro Giammattei on Monday, and made her priorities clear.
“Most people don’t want to leave the place they grew up. Their grandmother. The place they prayed. The place where their language is spoken, their culture is familiar,” Ms. Harris said. “And when they do leave it usually has to do with two reasons. Either they are fleeing some harm or they simply cannot satisfy their basic needs.”
Ms. Harris was tapped by President Biden to invest in the region to discourage the vulnerable from making the dangerous journey north. Ms. Harris has already committed to sending $310 million to the region, part of a $4 billion, four-year plan to improve the economy in Central America that is at the center of the Biden administration’s strategy to deter migration. Last month, Ms. Harris’s team touted commitments from a dozen private companies, including Mastercard and Microsoft, to develop the economy in Central America.
The administration will also establish new facilities throughout Guatemala where people can learn about obtaining asylum protections in the Central American region, rather than traveling to the U.S. border.
Mr. Giammattei said that the two governments would need to find common ground to work together.
“From now on, I offer you the best, historic relationship that there can be between the United States and Guatemala, in which you will find a country that wishes to cooperate, a country that wishes to unite efforts,” he said.
But questions remain over how Ms. Harris will ensure U.S. aid reaches those who need it most as she works with a Guatemalan government that continues to target entities fighting corruption. Antony J. Blinken, the secretary of state, has expressed concern to the Guatemalan government about its criticism of a lead prosecutor in the region. Mr. Giammattei has accused the prosecutor of having a left-wing agenda.
Ms. Harris has faced political attacks from Republicans for her role in working with the Central American countries. At a recent news conference, a group of Republicans displayed a milk carton that had been mocked up to show a picture of Ms. Harris with the headline “MISSING AT THE BORDER.”
The Biden administration is expecting to record this year the most encounters at the border in two decades.