(WASHINGTON) —Vice President Kamala Harris embarks on her first foreign trip since taking office Sunday, heading south of the U.S. border to lead the administration’s efforts to stem the flow of migration from Central America.
Her trip — to Guatemala and Mexico — is part of a two-track approach to the issue, senior administration officials have said, of “stemming the flow” in the near term and establishing a “strategic partnership” with Mexico and Northern Triangle countries “to enhance prosperity, combat corruption and strengthen the rule of law” in the longer term.
President Joe Biden assigned Harris to spearhead the effort in March when a record-breaking number of unaccompanied minors were crossing the southern border.
At the time, Biden called Harris “the most qualified” person to tackle the issue, with the role representing the first significant item in her portfolio.
Harris will hold bilateral meetings with President Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador during her trip to each country.
It will be the first face-to-face meetings between Harris and each leader, though Harris has held virtual meetings with both of them.
“The vice president’s strategy is built around catalyzing efforts across the United States government, regional governments as well, as well as private sector and philanthropic sectors and international partners,” Harris’ chief spokesperson Symone Sanders told reporters. “We have three key focuses we will lay out: economic development, climate and food insecurity, and women and young people.”
Harris arrives in Guatemala Sunday night and official business kicks off Monday. Along with her bilateral meeting, Harris is also expected to meet with Guatemalan community leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs, as well as greet and thank the U.S. embassy staff.
During her meeting with President Giammattei, Harris will “discuss ways to increase economic opportunities in Guatemala, strengthen rule of law and deepen bilateral law enforcement cooperation,” according to Mazin Alfaqih, special adviser to the vice president for the Northern Triangle.
Harris will depart Guatemala Monday evening for Mexico and she is expected to participate in a conversation with female entrepreneurs, as well as in a labor roundtable.
The vice president is slated to discuss how “the United States and Mexico can cooperate to bolster efforts in the Northern Triangle, and they will also talk about deepening the bilateral relationship, including on economic insecurity issues,” with President Lopez Obrador, according to Hillary Quam, special adviser to the vice president for the Western Hemisphere.
The politically fraught situation at the border has plagued multiple administrations, and Harris stepped into the role as the Biden administration struggles to balance its message that the U.S.-Mexico border is “closed” with its stated desire to find safe places for unaccompanied minors.
When presenting her the job, the president said the issue would not be Harris’ responsibility alone but that she would speak and act on his behalf. Some in the GOP, however, have tried to tie her to what they’ve characterized as a “crisis.”
For example, when the vice president planned to visit Wisconsin to tout Biden’s infrastructure plan in May, the state’s controversial GOP Sen. Ron Johnson, who is up for reelection in 2022, said in a statement that she was welcome, “but she really ought to inspect the crisis President Biden created at the border.”
New commitments have already been made ahead of Harris’ meetings. Guatemala has agreed to increase the number of border security personnel and the U.S. has committed $310 million in funds to provide humanitarian relief to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
“We will increase the number of U.S. border security officials in the regions to provide training and other capacity building in the region,” Alfaqih told reporters when asked if the U.S. would also scale up support.
Advisers said that cooperation on combating the COVID-19 pandemic would be on the table during Harris’ meetings but did not share specifics about what the conversations would focus on.
Mexico has already received 1 million COVID-19 vaccines from the U.S. and Guatemala is among the other nations across the globe expecting millions of doses to assist in curbing the spread of the deadly virus in the “next several weeks,” according to administration officials who detailed the rollout on Thursday.
Harris has acknowledged that curbing the flow of migration is a “challenging situation” and has since engaged with foreign officials and leaders in the private sector to address the issue.
Last week, the vice president announced a new agreement with 12 companies including Mastercard, Microsoft, Nespresso and Chobani, to invest in the Northern Triangle and support economic opportunities.
The “Call to Action” initiative will look to create new commitments in six focus areas with an emphasis on supporting vulnerable populations, including women and youth.
ABC News’ Molly Nagle, Ben Gittleson and Trish Turner contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.