Remarkably, President Joseph Biden has asked his vice president Kamala Harris to solve the current migration crisis on the southern border. Where during March and April 2021, more than 170,000 undocumented migrants were detained arriving in the United States each month, this represents the highest number of registered undocumented migrants in more than 15 years from which almost 40,000 were minors, situations that threatens to repeat the nightmare that many children and young people lived through during the Trump administration when minors were forced to be separated from their parents and slept in terrible circumstances, “children in cages” is an image that President Biden cannot allow without suffering a severe blow across the liberal spectrum that brought him to power. He must stop this flow ASAP.
But one might ask why vice president Kamala Harris? Why not the Secretary of State? Why not the Homeland Security Secretary? Probably it was the vice president herself who asked for this complicated task. But why? To increase her political capital? If that was the case then we are in front of a vice president who is seriously thinking to get into the Oval Office. Solving this crisis might increase her political capital within Washington, the Latino vote (the fastest-growing turn-out), and especially with President Biden.
On the other hand, if President Joseph Biden proposed it to her, then he has just thrown to his formula companion an authentic “hot potato”. The region is explosive and the problem has deep structural roots, did President Biden ignored this? Unlikely. A third scenario is that the former Obama vice president possesses some desire to decrease the popularity of the former California senator and first female vice president. Also possible because politicians tend to be suspicious of subordinates who are too popular. One must remember that President Biden is the oldest occupant of the White House and more than one democratic leader might have doubts to support him into a second term in 2024. Harris might be a realistic option who might give continuity to Biden’s project.
Kamala Harris has a gigantic task with low possibilities to succeed in the short term, however, it is not impossible.
Therefore why I am being so negative? Is it may be possible that vice president Kamala Harris might end solving the current migration crisis in Central America? Let consider the situation together. The approach that vice president Harris has declared is to face the deep reasons behind migration in the region, such as corruption, climate disasters, insecurity, and lack of economic opportunities. In principle I celebrate this paradigm change, it is an improvement in complexity comparing it with the Trump administration. However “the devil is on the details” it is important to understand the differences among the regional countries: Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
In El Salvador recently President Bukele has removed all the Constitutional Court Members and the State Attorney and continues pushing the country to an authoritarian path in which the accountability for the resources received by the US aid entity (USAID) might end in the ruler’s pockets or his close circle. Furthermore, in the last few days has declared the necessity to have a closer approach to The Peoples Republic of China.
Meanwhile, in Honduras, two massive hurricanes, Eta e Iota, generated hundreds of thousands of climate refugees within the country and the region. The accountability situation of the authorities is not much better than in El Salvador, second-term-President Juan Orlando has an official accusation of protecting the Los Chachiros Cartel in New York. Any aid dollar provided to the government might end being used for any other purpose rather than improving living conditions. The best two options for the vice president are Mexico and Guatemala, both relatively democratic nations that also happen to be the two that control the borders where there is the greatest passage of undocumented immigrants to the United States.
The easiest for the vice president in Guatemala since in Mexico President López Obrador might present more difficult demands to cooperate with Harris. President Lopez Obrador (AMLO as people in Mexico called him) has already mentioned that Mexico will not reinforce its borders due to political pressure, if it does, it will be due to a sovereignty decision. This statement should not surprise anyone Mexican nationalism is strong and very popular, makes you look good in front of the voters, and 6 in June Mexico is going to national elections to renovate thousands of officials in the legislative branch. President López Obrador is a clever astute politician with decades of experience in Mexican politics, he is not rocky in the game. It is possible that curbing undocumented migration to the United States across the Mexican borders is only feasible to the extent that President Biden’s government might offer something politically valuable such as to calm the largest union in the United States (AFL-CIO) and its recent pressure to sanction Mexico for alleged wrongdoing implementation of the T-MEC trade agreement.
The relationship between the United States and Mexico is multidimensional and multifaceted, but there is an essential difference when it comes to migration. For Mexican politicians cooperating with the United States stopping migration is politically expensive, well, it is unpopular. There is no anti-migration movement in Mexico as there is in the United States, so the Mexican president cannot become anti-immigration just because Kamala Harris asked kindly. It will cost the vice president a lot for Mexico to become stricter with undocumented migration.
But the US has another interesting option: Guatemala. Supporting the Government of Guatemala economically in exchange for hindering the Central American migratory flow may be less politically costly than with Mexico. For its part, the Guatemalan regime should obtain international aid to economically relieve this nation, which is also under great economic pressure due to the coronavirus and with an increasingly radicalized political opposition.
In summary, on June 7 and 8 the US vice president will visit Mexico and Guatemala to try to incite these countries to become “tough” against migratory flows, Guatemala will likely benefit the most from US economic aid, followed by Mexico. In third place will be Honduras and in the last place El Salvador. The measure of the vice president’s success will be conditioned by her ability to understand the local authorities’ situation. Stopping migrant flows in the short term, a task that seems complicated without returning to the militaristic approach of the Trump era.
The true economic transformation that the region needs implies a long-term commitment to the democratization of institutions, accountability, the strengthening of the rule of law, and the ability of states to collect progressive taxes, the latter mainly affecting many US companies who benefit from these privileged tax regimes. The problems of the region can only be solved by the locals. Perhaps stopping supporting the local anti-democratic regimes would be an authentic first step that the US can do to help to build a Central American future where people do not have to migrate.
Senior Researcher with the Institute of International Politics.
Coordinator of the Migration Research Team at IIP Europe.