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Saturday November 27th, 2021 9:19PM

Harris turns focus to Mexico on trip to address migration

By The Associated Press
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MEXICO CITY (AP) — Vice President Kamala Harris told Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador that the United States and Mexico are “embarking on a new era” during her first in-person meeting with the leader, as she seeks to foster greater cooperation with Mexico on immigration to the U.S.

Speaking at the start of their bilateral meeting at the Mexican national palace, Harris emphasized the “longstanding relationship” between the two nations and their “interdependence and interconnection.”

Joined by a number of her top foreign policy aides for the region, the two foreign leaders met for over an hour in an elegant conference room at the palace, seated across from each other under a grand crystal chandelier.

Just prior to the meeting, Harris and López Obrador watched as the Mexican foreign affairs secretary and the charge d'affaires of the U.S. embassy in Mexico signed a memorandum of understanding establishing greater cooperation between the two nations on development programs in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

Harris was later slated to meet with female entrepreneurs and labor leaders in Mexico, before heading back to Washington Tuesday night.

The visit to Mexico capped off Harris' first foreign trip as vice president, a brief foray focused on dealing with the root causes of migration that brought her first to Guatemala on Monday. While in Guatemala, she met with President Alejandro Giammattei. To coincide with their meeting the Biden administration announced a number of new commitments to combat trafficking, smuggling, and corruption, as well as investments in economic development in the country.

While her visit to Mexico didn't deliver as clear and concrete an agreement, Harris emphasized the importance of the relationship between the two nations.

“We have a partnership, a longstanding partnership. Other than Canada, we are the closest neighbors to each other,” Harris told reporters Monday night.

López Obrador remains a key but complicated ally in the Biden administration’s efforts to curb the spike in migration at the U.S. border.

While López Obrador committed in a previous virtual meeting with Harris that the U.S. can “count on us” to help address the issue of irregular migration, the Mexican president has in the past blamed President Joe Biden for the increase in migration at the border. And he was chummy with his predecessor, President Donald Trump, despite Trump’s hardline policies toward migrants.

Early last month, he also accused the U.S. of violating Mexico’s sovereignty for giving money to non-governmental organizations that were critical of his government.

But Harris, in her role dealing with the root causes of increased migration from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, as well as Mexico, has sought to strengthen diplomatic relations with the Mexican president.

Harris aides have said during her meeting with López Obrador, the two planned to discuss vaccine sharing, the economic and security relationship between the two nations, and dealing with the root causes of migration from other countries in the region. Harris speaks frequently of the need to improve economic conditions for residents of the region, so they don’t feel compelled to make the trek to the U.S. border.

The memorandum of understanding, according to special envoy Ricardo Zúñiga, who traveled with Harris on the trip, marks a new level of cooperation, and is important because the two nations have “some of the same issues” when it comes to irregular migration.

“It’s very important to show that the United States and Mexico are collaborating and trying to improve conditions on the ground among our neighbors, because of the importance that other countries in Central America have for both of us,” he told reporters traveling with Harris.

The vice president received some criticism Monday from members of her own party when she delivered a direct message to those considering fleeing their homes for the U.S. “Do not come,” Harris said, emphasizing the danger of the trek.

Her comments echoed those made by past U.S. officials as they've tried to dissuade migrants from seeking to cross the border, as the U.S. faces unprecedented numbers of attempted border crossings. But she was criticized by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who called her comments “disappointing” and said that seeking asylum is a legal means of entry.

Asked later by reporters about Ocasio-Cortez's criticism, Harris declined to respond directly, saying only, "I’m really clear: we have to deal with the root causes and that is my hope. Period.”

Her meeting with Lopez Obrador comes just days after the country’s midterm elections, during which the president's party appeared poised to maintain its majority in Mexico’s lower chamber of the congress, but fell short of a two-thirds majority as some voters boosted the struggling opposition, according to initial election results.

Harris is not expected to address the election results during her meeting with the president, but the bloody campaign — nearly three-dozen candidates or pre-candidates were killed as drug cartels sought to protect their interests — are certain to loom over their conversations. The government’s inability to provide security in parts of the country is of interest to the U.S. in an immigration context, both for the people who are displaced by violence and the impact it has on a severely weakened economy trying to reemerge from the pandemic.

The increase in migration at the border has become one of the major challenges confronting Biden in the early months of his first term, with Republicans seizing on an issue they see as politically advantageous as polling suggests Americans are less favorable toward Biden’s approach to immigration than they are toward his policies on the economy and the COVID-19 pandemic.

They’ve tried to make Harris the face of that immigration policy, charging she and Biden are ignoring the issue because both have yet to visit the southern border. Harris told reporters Monday in Guatemala that she was focused on addressing the root causes of migration in a way that delivers “tangible” results “as opposed to grand gestures.”

Regardless of the eventual outcome of her meetings Tuesday, Mexico will remain a key partner in enforcement efforts at the border.

Illegal border crossings have increased steadily since April 2020, after Trump introduced pandemic-related powers to deny migrants the opportunity to seek asylum, but further accelerated under Biden, who quickly scrapped many of Trump’s hardline border policies — most notably the “Remain in Mexico” program to make asylum-seekers wait in Mexico for court dates in U.S. immigration court.

U.S. border authorities encountered nearly 19,000 unaccompanied children in March, the highest on record. Overall, it had more than 170,000 encounters on the border in April, the highest level in more than 20 years though the numbers aren’t directly comparable because getting stopped under pandemic-related authorities carries no legal consequences, resulting in many repeat crossings.

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AP writer Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed reporting.

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