On the Border, Can Harris Succeed Where Biden Failed?
(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
On the Border, Can Harris Succeed Where Biden Failed?
(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
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Nearly two weeks after Vice President Kamala Harris told Central Americans considering making the perilous journey to the United States not to come because they can “find hope at home,” the U.S. Embassy in Honduras put out a starkly different message.

“Refugee resettlement in the United States is being restored to offer hope and a safe haven to people fleeing persecution,” the embassy said in a tweet written in Spanish celebrating Thursday’s World Refugee Day. “A more inclusive world will allow people to take care of ourselves, learn and shine.”

It was sent the same day news broke that Harris is heading to the Texas border on Friday, after months of resisting calls to make the trip. Just a few days before, the same embassy tweeted a joint statement from Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas promoting new ways Hondurans and others from the region could apply to come to the United States.

“We are fulfilling our promise to improve safe, orderly and humane migration from Central America by expanding legal avenues to request humanitarian protection in the United States,” the tweet stated.

Harris herself toned down the “do not come” remarks once she returned to Washington from Guatemala and Mexico earlier this month. On the Friday after her trip, she told a Spanish international news agency she was “committed” to ensuring the United States is a “safe haven” for people seeking asylum. 

The mixed immigration messaging is continuing amid a U.S. government social media and radio ad campaign in Central America trying to dissuade immigrants from making the journey. “Don’t put your kids’ lives at risk based on false hopes,” one man advises another in one radio spot before a narrator steps in to say that people can get ahead by remaining in their home countries.

The administration says the ads have reached at least 7 million Central Americans via 133 radio stations, but there’s no evidence they’re having an impact. More than 170,000 illegal immigrants were stopped at the U.S.-Mexico border in May, the third straight month that number was exceeded, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data. It’s also the most recorded border encounters since 2000.

Convincing would-be migrants not to flee for a better life in the U.S. is a tall order while  Northern Triangle countries — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — remain mired in crime, corruption and poverty.

Still, President Biden and Harris say they’re committed to solving the “root causes” behind the flood of illegal immigrants to the U.S. and are directing billions in U.S. taxpayer dollars to that end.

The only problem is that the most recent model failed miserably. While vice president, Biden led a push to try to stop the surge of illegal immigrants at the border by sending $3 billion in humanitarian aid to Central America — an effort to stabilize the region, fight corruption and create significant economic opportunities for the poor. But none of those goals were ever achieved. Now Biden is repeating the same play, tapping Harris to lead the effort and seeking to provide $4 billion in U.S. aid to the region over the course of the next three years.

Harris announced the first down payment of $310 million during her trip earlier this month, a rocky foray after media miscues and her “do not come” warning seemed to please no one, rankling those on the left while spurring further ridicule from the right.

That $310 figure includes $125 million to mitigate repeated droughts, food shortages and the COVID-19 pandemic, along with $104 million to help with the safety and protection of refugees and asylum seekers. The Defense Department is providing $26 million more to increase partnerships aimed at health, education and disaster relief services.

“I am here because the root causes are my highest priority in terms of addressing the issue and we need to deal with it, both in terms of the poverty we are seeing, the hunger that we are seeing, the effects of the hurricanes and the extreme climate conditions, what we are seeing in terms of the pandemic,” Harris told reporters while in Guatemala.

But foreign policy experts across the political spectrum, including those close to the administration, argue that Harris is simply dusting off the old, failed Biden model. What is needed, they all insist, is a dramatically different approach to providing U.S. aid to the region – while conservative critics adding that it’s impossible to solve the deep-seated poverty problems just by pouring more U.S. government dollars into the area.

Biden’s choice for an envoy to the Northern Triangle, career foreign service officer Ricardo Zuniga, was involved in crafting a very similar aid program during the Obama administration when he served as senior director for Western affairs at the National Security Council.

“It’s literally the same plan, orchestrated by the same people, for around the same amount of money – so how is it going to have different results?” asked one former veteran Washington foreign policy hand who specializes in the region and requested anonymity to speak openly on the controversial topic.

If the U.S. wants to provide humanitarian aid as a goodwill gesture, that’s one thing, the source said. But expecting an influx of U.S. funds and programming to curb illegal immigration without a security side of the equation isn’t realistic.

The Obama-Biden initiative in the region was called the Alliance for Prosperity but never lived up to the second half of that name, says Ryan Berg, a senior fellow in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“We got a lot of alliance and grew closer to the Northern Triangle countries, but we didn’t get a lot of prosperity for them,” he said. For instance, Berg points out, the United States has done years of police training in Mexico, but the country still has an impunity rate of around 90% --meaning the vast majority of crimes go unpunished.

Berg is particularly skeptical about the effectiveness of a recently announced U.S. Justice Department task force aimed at partnering with Northern Triangle countries to fight crime and corruption in the region. And, he argues, if the U.S. is going to provide billions more in humanitarian assistance, there should be sanctions and other consequences to ensure local governments clean up their acts. So far, however, the administration is so focused on channeling U.S. dollars to the region, there’s little incentive for governments to reform.

“The big miss is: What are the governments of these countries doing, especially in terms of gang violence, corruption and economic reform?” asked a former senior U.S. Agency for International Development official. “What are their financial and policy contributions to solving their problems?”

Others maintain that the U.S. could do far better in getting the funds to the right places and programs if USAID, which disburses most of the assistance, continues some specific Trump administration reforms to the contracting process put in place by Mark Green, the former USAID administrator who previously served as a Tennessee congressman. Green is one of the rare former Trump appointees who maintains bipartisan respect.

Those changes were focused on allowing more involvement from local charities and organizations already doing aid work on the ground. (The U.S. doesn’t give any money directly to Central American governments, but instead relies on USAID to fund programs and initiatives for the region.)

“We have the U.S. government coming in and playing a sort of generous uncle and trying to do some good in these places and doing it very clumsily,” said Anthony Fontes, an American University professor who serves as the faculty affiliate at its Center for Latin and Latino Studies.

Fontes was part of a team of researchers working last year on a Biden campaign blueprint for development in the Northern Triangle. He partly blames the lack of progress on President Trump for his decision to pull the plug on most U.S. aid to the region and disrupting the continuity of the programs from the Obama era. But Fontes also says the traditional way the U.S. has directed funds to the region is inherently flawed and wasteful.

International humanitarian aid contracting has become a lucrative inside-the-Beltway business, with these organizations consuming as much as 50% of the USAID funding they receive for overhead, rent, salaries and profit. Meanwhile, these same contractors often parachute into regions without strong relationships on the ground and then depart when the money has been spent.

“[There’s] this trickle-down effect until much of the money doesn’t make it … to the particular people targeted,” Fontes told RCP.

Many of the expensive for-profit aid corporations fill their staff with retired USAID officials “who are enjoying lavishly paid second careers by doing the same exact thing they did on the private side,” added James Roberts, a former foreign service officer now working on development assistance issues at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “It’s really a form of agency capture,” he said.

It’s a problem across most of USAID, not just in its Central America programming. A New York Times article in early June outlined the problem, noting that 80% of the American-financed development projects in Central America from 2016 to 2020 were given to American contractors, citing data provided by the aid agency.

Too often the money is misspent. The Times noted that a $20 million USAID program in Guatemala built outhouses for potato farmers – but most were quickly abandoned or torn apart for scrap metal. Another $31 million project, administered by Development Alternatives Incorporated, a company based in Bethesda, Md., created an app to enable residents to see how their local government spends money, but many of the residents didn’t have smartphones.

One way to combat this wasteful spending and make programs more effective is for large American contractors to partner with local organizations already serving the communities on the ground. USAID usually cannot channel funds directly to local charities and organizations because most lack the capability to comply with the U.S. government’s massive paperwork and regulatory requirements.  

Even though the Trump administration dramatically cut funding to Central America, it instituted significant contracting reforms allowing for a greater number of local organizations, including faith-based charities, to receive USAID sub-grants while working with larger American contractors.

Catholic organizations do most of the humanitarian heavy lifting in Central and South America and are better positioned to withstand corruption because drug cartels and other criminal enterprises take a more hands-off approach to them. “The region is still very religious, largely Catholic, and so a lot of these Catholic relief agencies have a lot of pull on the ground,” Berg said. 

As part of its “journey to self-reliance” aid mantra, the Trump administration also tried to boost the number of U.S. private-sector investments, an effort to help local businesses scale up their products and break into international markets in the U.S. and elsewhere.

After USAID Administrator Samantha Power traveled to Central America last week following Harris’ trip, she provided more details about a $39 million initiative involving a partnership with 12 private companies, including Starbucks and Target, to help small businesses and entrepreneurs in areas of high migration scale up their operations and break down barriers that prevent their products to reaching new markets.

USAID is continuing to work with local organizations “because we value their expertise, knowledge of local culture and understanding of the context on the ground,” a USAID spokesperson told RCP in a written statement. In Guatemala, for example, a pest management program for farmers was initially implemented by a U.S. contractor and support by a local organization called Agropecuaria Popoyan as a sub-grantee. After two years, Agropecuaria Popoyan became the prime implementer of a five-year, $36 million “Feed the Future” horticulture project.

The spokesperson also said USAID’s Latin and Caribbean missions are involved in 135 project awards with new or local partners, including several faith-based organizations, and has a specific $50 million annual local works program designed to work directly with local actors.

“Through these programs, USAID is adopting a locally led approach to mitigating the root causes of migration by addressing crime and youth violence, engaging with indigenous communities to improve access to education and economic opportunities and improving the local environment and solid waste management,” the spokesman added.

While encouraged that USAID has kept at least some of the Trump reforms, many foreign policy regional experts in and out of the administration are urging the agency to shift even more of its funding to local entities and encourage additional private-sector participation.

Still, even then, change will be incremental and unlikely to have a major impact on migration rates until the countries themselves enact rule-of-law and economic reforms to help local businesses prosper, build roads and bridges to move the products and spur large-scale private investment.

When Biden announced he wanted to send $4 billion in additional U.S. aid to the region, the Heritage Foundation’s Roberts said he went back to the speech President John F. Kennedy delivered when he first created USAID.

“He was talking about the very same problems in Central America that we are today,” Roberts said. “The reality is the obstacles to investment are daunting – out-of-control crime, lack of infrastructure, corruption – and they’ve been going on for a long, long time.”

Henry Kokkeler contributed to this report.

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.



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