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Can structural reforms in Central America stem migration to the U.S.?

Vice President Kamala Harris wrapped up her first international trip in Mexico on Tuesday, a day after stopping in Guatemala, in a bid to stem migration to the U.S. from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Nick Schifrin looks at Harris's trip and the thorny issues she and the Biden administration are trying to manage.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Vice President Kamala Harris is wrapping up her first international trip today in Mexico. She earlier visited Guatemala, in a bid to stem migration from the countries of the so-called Northern Triangle, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

    Nick Schifrin is back now with a look at Harris' trip and the thorny issues she and the administration are trying to manage.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Mexico City this morning, a united front. Flanked by Vice President Harris and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the U.S. and Mexico agreed to help develop the so-called Northern Triangle, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, home to 65 percent of migrants who try and make it to the U.S.

    Kamala Harris, Vice President of the United States: The United States and Mexico have a longstanding relationship.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Mexico and the U.S. don't always agree on the tactics, but they share a goal of reducing migration by targeting root causes.

    Violence. The Northern Triangle has homicide rates among the highest in the world. Poverty. The region is among the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. In Guatemala, that's produced hunger. The country has the world's sixth highest rate of chronic malnutrition. And so far this year, more unaccompanied Guatemalans have tried to enter the U.S. than from any other country.

  • Kamala Harris:

    The president and I also discussed the root causes of migration, in particular, the lack of economic opportunity for many people here in Guatemala.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Harris spent yesterday with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei.

    Whom she's not meeting on this trip reveals another root cause: bad governance and corruption. Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez is considered by U.S. law enforcement to be a key player in drug trafficking. And Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele is considered increasingly authoritarian.

    In Guatemala, Harris announced a U.S. anti-corruption task force, and said better governance can convince families to stay home.

  • Kamala Harris:

    Hope does not exist by itself. It must be coupled with relationships of trust. It must be coupled with tangible outcomes, in terms of what we do as leaders.

    Joe Biden, President of the United States: The question is no longer, what can we do for the hemisphere? It's what can we do with countries in the hemisphere together?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But Harris isn't the first vice president to try and tackle root causes. When he was vice president, Joe Biden presented the U.S. as a partner to tackling the same regional issues, and many of those issues have become more intractable.

    So, on this trip, Harris also had a more immediate message.

  • Kamala Harris:

    I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: Do not come. Do not come.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Border Patrol is detaining more people at the U.S.-Mexico border than at any point in 20 years.

    Republicans criticize the Biden administration for ending Trump era programs to deter migrants, and criticize Harris for not visiting the border, which she tried to deflect today on NBC.

  • Lester Holt, NBC News:

    You haven't been to the border.

  • Kamala Harris:

    And I haven't been to Europe.

  • Kamala Harris:

    I don't understand the point that you're making. I'm not discounting the importance of the border.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Biden administration describes its border policy as more humane.

    Today, it revealed that, from July 1, 2017, to January 20, 2021, 3,913 children were separated from their families. So far, 45 percent of those children have been confirmed reunited. Harris admits there's not going to be a quick fix to this problem.

  • Kamala Harris:

    We have to look at not only what is actually happening at the border, but what is causing that to happen.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For more, I'm joined by Eduardo Gamarra. He is a political science professor at Florida International University. He has served as a consultant to several heads of government in the Americas.

    Professor Gamarra, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    As we mentioned in the piece, this is not a new approach, trying to tackle the root causes of migration. Do you think there's anything that distinguishes Vice President Harris' approach from previous attempts?

  • Eduardo Gamarra, Florida International University:

    Well, I think the fact that the causes are recognized at the beginning is something new, and that we're not just dealing with a very, very quick response, trying to get, more than anything, a political response to this major crisis.

    So, addressing the root causes is important as a policy statement. The problem is that the root causes cannot be solved overnight, they can't be solved during one administration. And, as we know, this kind of goes back even as far back as President Reagan.

  • Nick Schifrin:


    The vice president has talked a little bit about the private sector, emphasizing that, but, at the end of the day, this plan, this approach requires working with the governments of the Northern Triangle. Are those governments reliable partners?

  • Eduardo Gamarra:

    Well, the fact is that democracy in Central America is facing some very serious challenges.

    It has challenges that are both structural and, as we might say in Spanish, conjunctural, right? They're crises of the moment. So you have everything from climate change, to the problems of violence, to the problems of low growth, and the problems of the pandemic.

    And on top of that, you have declining confidence in governance, declining confidence in institutions, and declining confidence, above all, in the politicians that are governing those countries.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    More specifically, as we mentioned, she chose Guatemala because, basically, it was the only government that she could be seen with.

    Are there people in Guatemala who will work with her, compared to some of the real problems at the very top that we have seen in Honduras and El Salvador?

  • Eduardo Gamarra:

    Guatemala has a private sector president who has made some overtures to the United States and who has been at least open enough to allow the vice president to arrive there and even push the idea that the assistance to Guatemala should not be to the government, but to the private sector and to civil society.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Do you think these leaders, whether Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador, are willing to achieve the structural reforms that we all know are necessary to tackle the root causes?

  • Eduardo Gamarra:

    Well, to address those structural reforms, what needs to occur is a long-term investment by the United States and others.

    This is not something that those countries have the capacity to do. So, structural reform means, for example, creating productive economies. To create productive economies, you need long-term investment, primarily from the American private sector or from the Europeans.

    That isn't going to occur if the conditions aren't right there.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Talk to some experts who say this discussion, what the vice president is focused on, is all well and good, but if you are going to tackle the immediate crisis of migrants at the border now, the Biden administration needs to do better to enforce U.S. law to create a deterrence.

    Do you agree?

  • Eduardo Gamarra:

    I agree.

    And I think the vice president went down there with part of that message: Don't come to the United States because we, in fact, do not have open borders.

    But yet, at the same time, we do have a crisis on the border, and people keep coming. And so there is a need to address those structural issues that are generating this enormous move of people all the way from that as well, by the way. They're coming up. They're using Central America to arrive in the United States.

    But at the same time, we also need to work with those governments in those countries in the development of better ways to enforce whatever is immigration law there and immigration law here.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And I wonder if, in this moment, there's another approach, another thing that the U.S. can also focus on to try and achieve this relationship the vice president's talked about, and that is vaccines, COVID vaccines, something that she has discussed with every leader in the region.

  • Eduardo Gamarra:

    And I think that this is an opportunity for the United States.

    The U.S. has essentially lost leadership in Latin America over the last couple of decades. And I think that the COVID pandemic, in fact, gives the United States a unique opportunity to regain leadership in the region, and beginning in Central America might be the right place to do it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Eduardo Gamarra, thank you very much.

  • Eduardo Gamarra:

    It's a pleasure.

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