Kamala Harris’ first international trip as vice president started in Guatemala with a blunt message for migrants: “Do not come,” she said, shaking her head at a news conference with Guatemala’s President Alejandro Giammattei. “Do not come.”
It’s possible that the message was meant less for the ears of migrants than for Fox News pundits and Republicans who relentlessly mischaracterize the Biden administration’s halfhearted steps toward a humane immigration policy as “open borders.”
Regardless, with those three words — “do not come” — Harris signaled disdain for the rights of asylum seekers under federal and international laws and dashed many people’s hopes that she might reform U.S. foreign policy in the region, which has long involved a contradictory combination of humanitarian aid and support for militaries that attack human rights.
Harris traveled to Guatemala to address the “root causes” of immigration, such as poverty and violence. But she made no mention of the U.S. role in those conditions, such as training right-wing death squads, financing coups or investing in extractive and exploitative industries. She promised to fight corruption but left out the U.S. role in fueling corruption.
Our understanding of corruption in countries south of the U.S.-Mexico border is deeply flawed because it conceives of the problem as separate from ourselves and endemic to the region, rather than tangled up with American foreign policy, investments, gun smuggling and firearms exports. When U.S. leaders talk of corruption in Latin America, it fuels racist tropes about Latinos by failing to acknowledge U.S. complicity.
Instead of tackling that complicity, Harris announced tens of millions of dollars in more aid, such as a $40-million “empowerment” initiative for “young, primarily Indigenous women,” and bragged about convening “some of our biggest CEOs” to increase investments.
But even a cursory glance at those CEOs reveals disregard for history’s lessons. Among the companies is Nespresso, which was found to have Guatemalan child labor in its supply chain last year. Many coffee producers dread the Nestlé-owned company.
“Nestlé hurts us a lot,” Miguel Tejero, a coffee industry leader in Oaxaca, Mexico, told me. He said the company floods markets with cheaper Robusta coffee, decreasing demand for the high-quality Arabica that small-scale producers grow. Studies show that less than 10% of the wealth from coffee stays in producing countries.
Rather than encouraging more investment from corporations that guzzle profits, the U.S. should invest in infrastructure for vulnerable communities to process, package and sell their own value-added products, Tejero said, as well as in the promotion of such products.
But while Harris had meetings with young women entrepreneurs, her primary function was as a human stop sign: “Do not come,” she said, warning that migrants who came to the border would be “turned back.”
The administration previously enlisted the militaries in Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico to block the flow of migrants. Biden’s budget requested $27.5 million in military financing for Central America, even though Congress approved a ban on military financing for Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador because of their documented, recurrent involvement in the massacre of Black and Indigenous people.
After a day in Guatemala, Harris traveled to Mexico City, where she met with Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, announcing millions to “address child and forced labor” and more bilateral cooperation to stop migration. After meeting women entrepreneurs there, too, she declared the trip a “success.” Then she flew home.
“Vice President Harris has made clear that the United States is going to itself continue to be a root cause of the crisis in Central America,” Dana Frank, a history professor at UC Santa Cruz, told me. Roberto Lovato, a journalist who has written about mass murder backed by the U.S. in El Salvador, said: “It’s all lipstick on the same ugly, murderous, greedy pig of U.S. policy.”
The Biden administration has left many of Trump’s immigration policies in place, including shutting out asylum-seeking adults. Officials know that border optics are a potent weapon for Republicans to fuel baseless white racial anxieties.
This isn’t the first time a Democratic administration has caved to xenophobic Americans. President Obama backed Plan Frontera Sur for border militarization to southern Mexico. And in the 1990s, the Clinton administration built new fencing and boosted Border Patrol resources as “deterrence,” which led to thousands of deaths.
We must understand that people risk their lives to get here not because of the inviting or uninviting words of an American president but because of terror at home — often enabled and supported by U.S.-backed armed forces that target Indigenous people.
Near the end of her trip, Harris deflected criticism about her failure to visit the Southwest border, insisting that she was trying to address the “root causes,” which can’t be “fixed in one trip that took two days.”
But as long as our officials refuse to acknowledge our historic, continuing and central role in those problems, people will come. They will come.
Jean Guerrero is an investigative journalist and author of “Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump and the White Nationalist Agenda.” She is a contributing writer to Opinion.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.