WASHINGTON — When President Biden charged his vice president with solving the “root causes” of the current migrant crisis at the southern border, she responded with surprising equanimity — and a smile.
“I gave you a tough job,” Biden said, a bit incredulous, as he announced her new role in front of a crush of reporters in the White House State Dining Room late last month. “And you’re smiling.”
Kamala Harris’s first major mission as vice president is not one a lot of politicians would be happy to receive. She’s been deputized to own arguably the most politically thorny issue the administration has on its plate, as Republican lawmakers rush to the border to decry an uptick in unaccompanied minors seeking asylum. Decades of failed attempts to overhaul the nation’s immigration system by administrations of both parties litter her way.
“Look it’s a huge problem, I’m not going to pretend it’s not,” Harris said in a CBS interview on March 24 in which she pleaded for some patience from the public. “We’re dealing with it, but it’s going to take some time.”
Harris is not the first vice president to get handed a politically unsavory task. Donald Trump put his vice president in charge of the COVID-19 response, effectively strapping a global pandemic to Mike Pence. And Barack Obama gave Biden the same difficult task Biden just delegated to Harris — helping to stem migration from the “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.
But the task has only become harder — and more politically polarized — since then. Harris’s team and Biden have been careful to stress that she does not own the broader problems plaguing the border itself, where minors have been sleeping on the floors of some overcrowded facilities for days beyond the legal limit. Rather, they emphasize that Harris is focused on the diplomatic mission of working with Central American countries to address the drug violence and lack of economic opportunity spurring families to flee in the first place.
That distance from the worst conditions at the border may serve as a political buffer for Harris, especially if she runs for president again, while the focus on Central America could serve as an opportunity to burnish her foreign policy credentials. But her carefully tailored assignment could prove just as tricky as the border. Harris will confront a profoundly changed region from the one Biden attempted to aid as vice president, and tackling the “root causes” of migration from there is a mammoth task fraught with geopolitical complexity.
“This is a different Northern Triangle than Biden had to deal with as vice president, which was already very troubled,” said Michael Shifter, president of the nonpartisan Inter-American Dialogue think tank. “The crises are deeper in almost every respect than when he dealt with this in 2014.”
A White House official said Harris had not yet decided on the metrics of success and was still getting her bearings after receiving the assignment directly from Biden. Some allies push back on the notion that the job is impossible, or politically toxic, arguing that any momentum in the right direction will be taken as a win from the public.
“If she can succeed at this, any kind of incremental improvement down there is a step in the right direction, then that certainly gives her an accomplishment she can tout on the campaign trail,” said Adrienne Elrod, a former Biden campaign and transition official.
In the week since receiving the assignment, Harris has spoken to Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and received a briefing from the top officials running point on the issue — Roberta Jacobson and Juan Gonzalez of the National Security Council as well as Ricardo Zúñiga, the State Department’s special envoy for the Northern Triangle. She’ll also likely travel to Central America in the future.
To succeed, Harris will have to build credibility in a region that’s been alternately roiled and abandoned by the United States with disastrous results. After helping fuel brutal civil wars in the region in the 1980s, the United States largely turned away without seeing peace reforms through. That helped set the stage for the corrupt politicians, narco traffickers, and gangs that came to exploit the countries’ lack of economic opportunity and overwhelmed police forces.
The conditions it helped sow came back to haunt the United States in 2014, when young children began fleeing the region in large numbers and attempting to cross the US-Mexico border without their parents. The humanitarian crisis — which forced federal officials to shelter some minors on military bases as they scrambled to find beds — persuaded the Obama administration to funnel more resources into addressing the underlying drivers of migration.
Biden served as Obama’s key negotiator, making multiple trips to the region and meeting with country leaders as a bipartisan group of officials developed a multiyear plan for US financial assistance to the region that centered on improving security, governance, and economic growth. Biden also worked out a complementary initiative with all three Northern Triangle nations and the Inter-American Development Bank.
As part of the plans, Congress has appropriated more than $3.6 billion since 2016 to promote foreign investment in the region and the countries committed a total of $5.4 billion of their own funds from 2016 to 2017 to better train, recruit, and deploy police officers, improve the legal system, and bolster institutions.
While the effort appeared to initially pay off in some areas, the region is now even worse off than it was before, which has some members of Congress skeptical about providing more aid without tighter restrictions. While analysts partly blame the increased corruption on the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw the aid and focus on border enforcement, Harris may face trouble persuading Congress to allocate more money.
“Unfortunately you have seen tremendous backsliding on the rule of law and democratic values and that is going to require a new and innovative approach on how to prioritize these types of issues,” said Adriana Beltrán, who leads the Citizen Security program at the Washington Office on Latin America, a nongovernmental organization that promotes human rights in Latin America and the Caribbean.
This backsliding in the region means Harris, unlike Biden, won’t be able to rely on strong relationships with Northern Triangle governments as she attempts to improve stability there. In El Salvador, a favored partner during the Obama years, the popular new president, Nayib Bukele, has shown authoritarian tendencies, at one point bringing in police and military officers to pressure legislators into OK’ing a loan for defense spending.
In Honduras, President Juan Orlando Hernández has been entangled in a massive cocaine trafficking investigation out of the Southern District of New York. Hernández denies the allegations. And in Guatemala, a strong, right-wing backlash has led to the shutdown of an international commission that had been working to expose high-level corruption, as well as training local prosecutors to take the cases to court.
Harris also will have to contend with climate-driven disasters and drought that have since intensified and further exacerbated already unstable conditions, said Cynthia J. Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “The most obvious example being these two enormously powerful hurricanes that hit Central America one after another last November,” she said.
One of the trickiest issues Harris will face is how to structure aid to the countries, given the distrust the United States has for some of their leaders, as well as convincing Congress to appropriate the billions of dollars Biden wants in the first place.
“It’s multifaceted and it’s a little bit complicated, but this is what we need to do,” Representative Jim McGovern of Worcester said of the infusion of aid. “We can target money to avoid having to go through corrupt government officials’ hands. We can support civil society and rely more on them to help develop a way forward.”
Harris does not have the foreign policy credentials that Biden did in 2014. But foreign policy and migration experts say that as a former prosecutor and California’s attorney general, she is well suited for a job that at its core is about addressing the deterioration of the rule of law. They are urging her to send a tough message against corruption and in favor of human rights, and to work in closer partnership than Biden did with leaders outside of government — including prosecutors, judges, activists, and independent journalists — who have served as a counterweight to corrupt officials.
“She is no stranger to being tough, we know that, and she has dealt with criminality as attorney general of California and she has a strong background on that,” Shifter said. “She will have to combine that prosecutorial approach with some diplomatic finesse if she wants to be effective.”
Harris has extensive experience in balancing the need to protect immigrant rights with enforcing US immigration law. She has faced criticism from the left and the right over her policy stances, but she has often spoken about her attempts to use the power of the law to protect the welfare of children.
Harris’s family background also gives her a unique perspective on the issue.
“She is the daughter of immigrants from two different continents and she’s grown up in that,” said Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, a Democrat and close ally of Biden’s. “So she will understand a whole lot about the choices people make to even become immigrants. If your experiences are instructive, she may be just the person for this.”
But that personal experience could make it more challenging for her, said Nadia E. Brown, an associate professor of political science at Purdue University’s College of Liberal Arts, who researches Black women’s representation.
“She is living in the American dream as the second in charge because her parents came to the United States,” Brown said. Now she would ostensibly be “offering the same opportunities to other immigrant families or closing the door on other families like hers.”
Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.