U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris emphasized "the power of hope" Monday, along with new efforts to fight corruption to persuade Latin Americans to stay home rather than attempt the dangerous migration north to the United States.
In her first foreign trip as the U.S. second in command, Harris said at a news conference in Guatemala City that Latin Americans "don't want to leave the country where they grew up."
But she said people in the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, along with Mexico, need economic development that promises a better life than trying to move to the U.S.
Harris said "help is on the way" with Washington aid and private investments encouraged by the U.S. government in agriculture, housing and businesses. "We have reason to believe we can have an impact," she said.
But Harris warned Guatemalans, "Do not come" to the U.S. "We're not afraid to enforce our laws and borders," she declared.
Harris held what she described as "very frank, very candid" talks with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei about corruption in his country, pressing the need for "a strong court system" and civil governance.
Shortly after she met with the Guatemalan leader, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced in Washington the creation of a law enforcement task force aimed at fighting human trafficking and smuggling groups in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries.
"We are creating this task force to address corruption, to address human smuggling — doing the work to make sure certain progress be made if we are going to attract investment," Harris said.
She said the task force would combine resources from the Justice, State and Treasury departments.
At the news conference, Giammattei blamed drug traffickers for corruption. He said that the U.S. and Guatemala agreed to create a "very simple process" through visas to permit regular migration to the U.S., and that the two countries would prioritize family reunifications.
He also announced a new processing center for migrants sent back from Mexico and the United States.
Besides meeting with Giammattei, Harris participated in a roundtable with Guatemalan community and civil society leaders and then met with young innovators and entrepreneurs, including several female entrepreneurs.
On Monday evening, she flew to Mexico City, where she will meet Tuesday with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, along with entrepreneurs and labor leaders.
Harris' trip is fraught with U.S. political implications, with Republicans blaming President Joe Biden and Harris for the surge in migrants trying to cross the country's southwestern border with Mexico. In the most recent count, U.S. border agents faced 178,000 migrants at the border in April, 44% of them from Central America.
At her news conference, Harris deflected a question about when she would visit the border, even though she has said she would at some point.
At a recent news conference, some Republicans displayed a milk carton depicting Harris with the headline: "MISSING AT THE BORDER."
Biden has tasked Harris with leading the effort to address the root causes behind the increase in the number of migrants traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Administration officials highlighted corruption as a major factor behind the migration and private companies avoiding expanding their investments in Central America.
"For us, it's a direct correlation between corruption and people arriving on our southwest border," one official said.
Ahead of her trip, Harris announced $310 million in U.S. aid to support refugees and deal with food shortages. She also recently won commitments from U.S. companies and organizations to invest in Central American countries to promote economic opportunity and job training.
The U.S. also last week said it would send 500,000 doses of coronavirus vaccine to Guatemala and a million to Mexico.