MEXICO CITY - The Guatemalan human smuggler didn’t hear Vice President Kamala Harris tell migrants they aren’t welcome in the U.S during her visit to his country. He was too busy ferrying a group of six Hondurans from Guatemala City to the Mexican border, en route to the U.S.
A taxi driver in an industrial Guatemala city bordering Mexico also missed Harris’ speech. But his takeaway from commentators on the radio was that she had refused to say whether the U.S. would grant special legal protections to Guatemalans who fled their homes following devastating back-to-back hurricanes last year.
Harris’ stern message that Guatemalan migrants aren’t welcome in the U.S. received widespread coverage in American media outlets. But her plea fell on deaf ears or was dismissed by the very people it was aimed at: Central Americans thinking about migrating to the U.S.
“People are going to continue migrating to the U.S.,” said Nery Vasquez, a taxi driver in the department of San Marcos, who dismissed the suggestion that Harris’ comments could change migration flows as nothing short of ludicrous.
Harris’ trip to Guatemala and Mexico this week was her first as vice president, and something of a political gamble. She is seeking to address one of the U.S.’s most vexing and polarizing issues: Stemming migration to the U.S. border and improving conditions in Central American countries, which are plagued by widespread immunity, corruption, and heart-stopping poverty and violence.
So far, the trip hasn’t won her much praise.
In the U.S., immigrant-rights groups and progressive Democrats lambasted Harris for suggesting the U.S. isn’t open to migrants or asylum seekers. “I want to be clear to folks in the region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: Do not come. Do not come,” Harris said on Monday in Guatemala City, steps away from Guatemalan President, Alejandro Giammattei.
"First, seeking asylum at any US border is a 100% legal method of arrival," retorted Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter. "Second, the US spent decades contributing to regime change and destabilization in Latin America. We can't help set someone's house on fire and then blame them for fleeing.”
“We are disappointed by her statements telling people from the region, ‘Do not come,’” Oscar Chacón, executive director of Alianza Americas, a network of migrant-led organizations, said in a statement. “This is a message that will hardly address the factors that are behind why people are fleeing Central American countries and Mexico.”
Addressing root causes of migration was the main purpose of Harris’ trip, and her meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador concluded on Tuesday with an announcement that the U.S. will invest $130 million over three years to help Mexico implement labor legislation and support protections for Mexican workers. They also signed a memorandum of understanding to work together to address the root causes of migration in Central America.
In Guatemala, Harris announced that a U.S. task force would work with local prosecutors to combat corruption in the region. Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are among the most corrupt countries in the world, according to the Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index.
Still, it’s an idealistic — and perhaps naive — goal considering Guatemalan officials dissolved its much-hailed anti-corruption commission in 2019 after it went after too many high-level officials. Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele dissolved an international-led anti-corruption group over the weekend — just days before Harris’ announcement.
The vice president's promise to combat corruption was well received among Guatemalans, but many felt betrayed by her hardline stance against migrants.
“We were happy at first that she was coming, but after her speech everything changed,” said Freddy Contreras, a taxi driver in Guatemala City. “We thought she was going to talk about helping our country. About malnutrition. About poverty. Not that she wanted people to stop migrating.”
While Central American families and unaccompanied children have driven migration waves in recent years, single Mexican adults seeking work in the U.S. account for the largest number of apprehensions this year. More than 178,000 migrants were stopped at the U.S southwest border in April, the highest monthly number in 21 years. The number of unaccompanied minors fell by 12 percent, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Those trends may soon change.
The Guatemalan smuggler, who operates one leg of a multinational smuggling network, told VICE World News that the number of single male adults seeking to travel to the U.S. has fallen in recent weeks because the summer weather makes the desert too hot to try and cross.
“Right now, the only people traveling are those who want to turn themselves over to immigration,” he said.
These days, most of his clients are women and teenagers traveling without their parents. “If a father goes with his son, they aren’t going to give him asylum, but if a child goes alone he will win his case because he is traveling alone,” said the smuggler.
That’s not true — minors traveling alone are not guaranteed to win their asylum case. But what is accurate is that unaccompanied minors who reach the U.S. border are allowed in, and are sent to shelters before being reunified with family members. That message has reverberated among migrant families and fueled the surge in unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S. border
As the smuggler talked, the call got cut off.
“Sorry,” the smuggler said, after dialing back. “I just got a call from someone looking to book a trip.”