US VP Harris outlines dual approach to stop Central American migration

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris. Photo by: Lawrence Jackson / Official White House Photo

The United States must address both “acute” and “root” causes of migration to help people from Central America lead productive and prosperous lives in their own countries, Vice President Kamala Harris said Tuesday.

“I believe this is an important distinction. We must focus on both,” Harris said at the virtual Washington Conference on the Americas.

Harris, who has been tasked by U.S. President Joe Biden to address conditions in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras that have led to an unprecedented number of migrants arriving at the U.S. southern border, said acute factors of migration include hurricanes, the COVID-19 pandemic, drought, and extreme food insecurity. They are causing people to leave the Northern Triangle at “alarming rates,” she said.

The U.S. must use a “place-based approach” to target assistance to people who have been the hit hardest, Harris said. Parts of Guatemala and Honduras are still affected by two hurricanes that swept through in November, and food insecurity has risen dramatically as a result of pandemic restrictions and weather pattern shifts resulting from climate change.

“No matter how much effort we put in ... we will not make significant progress if corruption in the region persists.”

— U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris

Root causes, Harris said, are more ingrained structural and societal issues that have made it difficult for people to thrive in their own countries over the long term: corruption, violence, poverty, and a lack of economic opportunity, governance, and climate adaptation and resilience.

Harris acknowledged that issues of corruption and governance are some of the thorniest to solve. Successfully targeting U.S. assistance to show demonstrable improvements is extremely challenging without buy-in from government officials who often benefit from such corruption, and years can pass before democracy and governance programs have a measurable effect on citizens’ desire to flee a government incapable of meeting their basic needs.

So far, Harris has engaged with leaders of Guatemala and Mexico, and she is set to visit both countries next month. The leaders of El Salvador and Honduras pose a larger problem as the U.S. works to improve conditions in the region. U.S. prosecutors say they are investigating Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández for taking bribes, and lawmakers from Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s party voted Saturday to oust judges from the country’s Supreme Court.

That move drew swift condemnation from the U.S. State Department and congressional leaders, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Bukele on Sunday to express “grave concern.” U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power called it “deeply alarming” and met with Salvadoran civil society leaders Tuesday to discuss how U.S. assistance could “help them uphold rule of law.”

“An independent judiciary is critical to a healthy democracy and a strong economy. On this front, on every front, we must respond,” Harris said. “No matter how much effort we put in on curbing violence, on providing disaster relief, on tackling food insecurity, on any of it, we will not make significant progress if corruption in the region persists. If corruption persists, history has told us it will be one step forward and two steps back.”

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Senior Reporter at Devex. She has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.