The world leader who has had the most frequent conversations with Vice President Kamala Harris about US immigration policy describes her as a straight-talking, detail-oriented leader who pays close attention to the long-standing reasons why people leave his country.
Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, who will host Harris here on Monday during her first international trip as vice president, also claims that the change in administrations in Washington was exploited by human traffickers known as “coyotes,” who ferried thousands of children to the US-Mexico border within days of President Biden formally rescinding the Trump-era family separation policy. Giammattei wants American lawmakers to toughen federal anti-trafficking laws, and he is willing to extradite them to face charges.
Harris, he said, is open to the idea and is expected to announce plans for Justice Department prosecutors to work with Guatemalan authorities to prosecute drug traffickers and other transnational criminals. The White House declined to comment on those apparent plans ahead of the vice president’s trip on Friday. In March, Mr. Biden charged Harris with dealing with the unprecedented influx of undocumented immigrants. Her two-day trip to Guatemala and Mexico comes after weeks of intensive meetings with regional leaders and civil society members, as well as what aides describe as intense meetings on the subject with US experts and State Department and National Security Council staffers.
Mr. Biden has called the Trump administration’s immigration policy “inhumane,” and he has directed the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services to overhaul how they detain and process undocumented immigrants. Thousands of young children are still being held by federal agencies on a daily basis, but the number is down from spring highs that set records for the time of year, prompting Republicans to criticize Democrats for upending previous policy and inviting the record influx of migrants.
However, leaders in the United States and Central America agree that other factors are at work. Last fall, two major hurricanes devastated parts of Guatemala, and climate change continues to devastate other parts of the country, rendering once-fertile lands unusable for families looking to grow crops for their own consumption or to sell and export. Domestic violence is a common push factor for women and children in the region, and the illegal drug trade continues to thrive. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has weakened already fragile economies.
McInerney noted that a domestic travel ban imposed to combat the virus’s spread has made it difficult for poor rural farm workers to travel from the northern highlands to the Pacific coast to harvest sugarcane or to the nation’s renowned coffee fields to harvest one of the country’s most lucrative exports.
Giammattei described himself as “frustrated” by images of thousands of unaccompanied minors being detained in US facilities after crossing the southern border. However, he went out of his way to describe how his government, which has been in power since January 2019, has stepped up efforts to work with American authorities to stem the flow.
He stated several times that the main reason his citizens choose to leave is a lack of economic opportunity. That sets his country apart, he says, from neighboring El Salvador and Honduras, where he says violence fuelled by the illegal drug trade is a major push factor.
However, Giammattei believes that corruption pervades all aspects of society, including business and non-governmental organizations, the leaders of which he claims earn large salaries. For many years, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras were referred to as the Northern Triangle, a trio of Central American countries comprising the western half of the continent. Some regional leaders have attempted to use the distinction in the past to negotiate regional trade or security agreements. However, in the interview, Giammattei called the term “an insult” and stated that his country is actively seeking distance from its two eastern neighbors due to deteriorating political situations. El Salvador is led by Nayib Bukele, an outspoken leader who is actively consolidating power, attacking critics, including US lawmakers, on social media, and has a frosty relationship with Biden administration officials.
Honduras is led by Juan Orlando Hernández, whose brother was sentenced to life in prison on drug trafficking charges in the United States in March.
Privately, Biden administration officials admit that, given the region’s political situation, Guatemala is the best worst option for an immigration partner. Giammattei appears content to be the lead partner.