Kamala Harris was brought in to solve the immigration crisis. Then the problem shifted

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

Kamala Harris was brought in to solve the immigration crisis. Then the problem shifted

Kamala Harris, Immigration and the Border

Noa Bierman

February 5, 2024

President Biden, who faced a political crisis at the US-Mexico border in the early days of his administration, tapped Vice President Kamala Harris

to lead a high-profile response that would focus primarily on improving conditions in three Central American countries. That’s how it was known

strategy of the ‘root causes’


The border, government officials discussed, was only a symptom. If the United States could improve economic, security, and political conditions in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala


Fewer people would risk the dangerous journey and much of the problem could be solved, they reasoned.

Three years later, the border crisis has only worsened, with record numbers of migrants from across the hemisphere overwhelming the border, and a president on the defensive as Republicans make immigration a key issue in his re-election campaign.

Migration specialists say the government has miscalculated and adopted a narrow and time-consuming strategy that failed to anticipate the changing nature of migration.

It was focused on a long-term scenario and it targeted countries that are no longer the main sending countries, said Ariel Ruiz Soto, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, an independent research group.


The record number of migrants at the border has been fueled by people fleeing Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Haiti, which together accounted for 583,000 border arrests in the 2023 fiscal year.

The three countries in Harris’ original portfolio showed significant declines in annual migration, from more than 700,000 border arrests in fiscal 2021 to

less less

than 500,000 in 2023.

But they will be active again in the first three months of the 2024 budget year.

Mexico, meanwhile, is still the largest source of migrants, with 717,000

for the year 2023


which year?

You can’t have a “root causes” strategy for every country in the Western Hemisphere, says Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director of the American Immigration Council, a group that advocates for immigrant rights.

The government’s struggle to track the moving target is part of a decades-long pattern, Ruiz Soto said. Smugglers and migrants tend to adapt to dynamics on the ground more quickly than U.S. policymakers, he said.

that the

Venezuelans are now more at risk of coming north than Guatemalans because there are fewer flights sending them back home.

America’s immigration enforcement system is reactionary.”

he said. “It

responds to what happens on the day of. It doesn’t look forward.

Administration officials say Harris should be judged based on the $4.2 billion commitments in private investment she has promoted and the roughly $1 billion a year in U.S. aid to the three countries in her portfolio. And they claim her high-profile job was just part of the plan to tackle the border crisis.

Biden is now locked in negotiations with Republicans in Congress, who opposed a border enforcement deal they initially proposed.

There are underlying causes, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said recently


briefing, referring to Harris’ portfolio. Then we are dealing with a broken system, and that is why we have put forward an immigration proposal that is about policy and financing.

In addition to private investment, government officials point to efforts to connect 4 million Central Americans to the internet and train 400,000 people in skills programs, along with less tangible efforts to advance the rights of workers and women in the region.

Harris’ national security adviser, Phil Gordon, has also been instrumental in setting up offices in Guatemala that screen migrants seeking refugee status and other legal avenues of entry without going to the border. The program now also includes Colombia, Ecuador and Costa Rica.

According to the administration, more than 120,000 people registered through the centers in mid-January.

It is difficult to measure the impact of such programs because dynamics outside U.S. control are often the biggest factor.

Harris has spent little time in Central America and recently skipped the inauguration of Guatemalan President Bernardo Arvalo. His swearing-in on January 15 was a victory for the government, which publicly and privately supported him out of fear that he would not be able to take office.

An administration official said Harris plans to meet Arvalo in Washington in March, where she will announce new investments in the private sector.

Arevalo’s rise is seen as positive for one of Harris’ top goals: improving democratic institutions. Harris and other government officials have said corruption and failed institutions are key factors, along with crime, poverty and lack of security, pushing people to leave their homes.

The Biden administration came to view Guatemala “as a defense of democracy, and I think rightly so,” said Eric L. Olson, policy director of the Seattle International Foundation, who has sometimes written critically about the “root causes” strategy when it was deployed during the Obama administration.

Guatemala is an example where improving democracy will likely help slow migration, he said.

If you don’t help the man who was elected by an overwhelming majority cross the finish line, then you’re really going to have a whole other level of immigration problems, he said.

But what is good for democracy is not always good for slowing migration.

El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele has alarmed human rights activists with his broad crackdown on gangs, which includes widespread arrests and detentions.

He filed for re-election on Sunday, in defiance of a consti

tional term limit. But Bukele’s crackdown has played a major role in halting migration from El Salvador, as residents who once feared gang violence are no longer forced to leave, according to specialists.

It’s a huge contradiction, Reichlin-Melnick said. And there is also an increasing willingness on the part of the United States to accept authoritarianism in exchange for authoritarians cracking down on migrants coming to the U.S. border.

An administration official emphasized that Biden and Harris remain committed to both human rights and immigration enforcement, noting specific efforts to curb extrajudicial killings and professionalize security forces.

Conservative critics of Harris challenge another assumption in the “root causes” plan: that aid projects and foreign investment will prove more attractive to people at home than if they come to America.

The main cause of migration at the moment is the enormous attraction


United States, said Senator James Lankford (



to Republican Oklahoma

who is leading Republican border negotiations. When you cross the border, you are allowed to enter the country and you will immediately receive a work permit. I mean, that’s the real appeal.

For most migrants arriving at the border, that’s not true. Asylum seekers must wait at least six months after submitting their application before they can receive a work permit.

Staff writer Andrea Castillo contributed to this report.


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