Vice President Kamala Harris’ effort to tackle root causes of migration from Central America has yielded more than $4.2 billion in private sector commitments, but border crossings remain high amid mass migration in the Western Hemisphere.
In March 2021, during an influx of unaccompanied migrant children, President Joe Biden tasked Harris with overseeing diplomatic efforts with the Northern Triangle. At the time, most minors apprehended on the US southern border were from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – a region where major hurricanes and the coronavirus pandemic took a devastating toll.
Republicans seized on the assignment, dubbing Harris the “border czar” – a title the White House rejected, arguing that her focus was on long-term fixes. And last year, as an affront to Harris, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, began busing migrants to her residence at the Naval Observatory.
Since being tasked with tackling root causes, Harris has only occasionally talked about the effort as the situation along the US-Mexico border became a political vulnerability for Biden. Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, latched onto the issue from the outset of the new Congress, with plans to hold a congressional hearing on the matter just hours before the president’s State of the Union address on Tuesday.
A senior administration official recognized the attention on the US-Mexico border but maintained that Harris’ work is not intended to solve the immediate issues on the ground there.
“The vice president’s work and what we’re focused on this afternoon is thinking long term and getting at the root of the problem as the administration simultaneously addresses the immediate challenges at the border,” the senior administration official told reporters Monday.
In El Salvador, there’s been concern about limiting checks and balances in government, while in Guatemala, there have been concerns about government corruption. And in Honduras, there was an even greater concern about corruption within the government before President Xiomara Castro’s election. But Castro has also struggled to make inroads rooting out corruption and curtailing organized crime, which has rankled the country for decades.
Harris has leaned on the private sector to shore up support for Central America, along with the Partnership for Central Americas, which acts as a liaison between companies and the US government.
Around 47 companies and organizations are collaborating across financial services, textiles and apparel, agriculture, technology, telecommunications, and nonprofit sectors to bolster the region’s economy, according to a White House fact sheet.
Among those companies are Chegg, an online-learning platform that has committed to certifying 100,000 young adult students in Honduras by 2030, Nestle, which is supporting thousands of coffee producers, and Target.
On Monday, Harris will meet with private sector leaders and administration officials to strategize next steps. There, Harris will announce more than $950 million in new commitments, bringing the total to more than $4.2 billion, the senior administration official said.
Experts credit Harris’ ability to secure private sector investments as her most visible action in the region to date but have cautioned about the durability of those investments over the long term.
Senior administration officials argued Monday that the investments have begun to show results on the ground. For example, the Honduran Coffee Company and Grupo Cadelga committed nearly $3 million and $850,000, respectively, to partner with the US Agency for International Development to assist over 10,000 coffee farmers.
The next phase of Harris’ initiative, dubbed “Central America Forward,” will focus on good governance and labor rights. New commitments from the US government include a so-called US Government Northern Central America Investment Facilitation Team to support clean energy infrastructure development, USAID workforce development programs, and continued efforts to empower women in the region.
“We believe that these efforts really go hand in hand with the private sector investments … to create a sort of positive ecosystem that will provide opportunity and hope,” the senior administration official said.
Harris and the Partnership for Central America have also set forth goals to provide digital access to millions of people in the region, create jobs, and increase incomes of thousands of farmers, among other initiatives, over the coming years.
But in the interim, migration remains at historic highs amid deteriorating conditions in Latin America that were exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. And it’s increasingly included more migrants from countries outside of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala – posing a unique challenge to the Biden administration.
Last December, border authorities took 77,043 migrants from Cuba or Nicaragua into custody, according to US Customs and Border Protection data. That’s compared to 52,776 encounters with migrants from Mexico and northern Central America, marking a drop from December 2021.
It’s unclear what affect Harris’ effort has had on migration, with another administration official calling it part of the “comprehensive strategy” toward stemming the flow of people journeying to the US southern border.
More than 6 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants have fled the country. Nicaraguans have also increasingly been migrating, as well as Haitians who had moved to the region years ago.
The administration recently announced a program that allows migrants from Haiti, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela to apply to legally come to the United States. Those who arrive to the US-Mexico border without applying for the program, however, can be turned away by border authorities under a Covid-era border restriction, known as Title 42.