WASHINGTON – US President Joe Biden’s first trip abroad may be deemed successful in cementing the transatlantic alliance, but Vice-President Kamala Harris’ first overseas trip has been called a failure, even by some Democrats.
In fact, her June 7-9 trip to Guatemala and Mexico was always unlikely to succeed, given the challenge of addressing the root causes of the spike in migration to the United States from Central America – principally the so-called “Northern Triangle” countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
The reality is that migration from the poverty, crime, natural disasters and corruption that plague these countries is not going to change any time soon, and will remain a political hot potato in the US.
The Biden administration, at best, can go through the motions of addressing it, as many have done before, including Mr Biden himself when he was vice-president.
However, the stakes are higher than usual for Mrs Harris.
Historically, most vice-presidents – with very few exceptions – have not been high profile, and they have also been careful not to outshine their bosses. But Mrs Harris came into the office with additional symbolism as the first woman – and first woman of colour – to hold the post.
Additionally, Mr Biden is 78, and almost certainly a one-term president. Mrs Harris would almost by default be a candidate for the presidential nomination in 2024.
With yet another border migration crisis on hand, and being flayed for it daily by right-wing conservative media, it was important for the Biden administration to try to do something about it. There were 180,000 unauthorised border crossings just last month, according to US Customs and Border Protection – a two-decade high.
More than two million people are estimated to have left El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras since 2014.
In a June 7 brief, the Council on Foreign Relations noted: “Decades of civil war and political instability planted the seeds for the complex criminal ecosystem that plagues the region today, which includes transnational gangs.
“Critics say that US interventions during the Cold War helped destabilise the region. Homicide rates in the Northern Triangle have been among the world’s highest in recent decades.”
The Biden administration has named senior US officials to liaise with the Northern Triangle governments, proposed a US$4 billion (S$5.4 billion) plan to address migration’s root causes in Central America. It has issued a series of executive orders reforming immigration and asylum procedures.
Upon her return, Mrs Harris ran into fierce criticism, not least from progressives in her own party who did not like her discouraging migrants, many of whom are asylum seekers – which is allowed under US law.
Her willingness to take on an assignment as difficult as migration from the Northern Triangle speaks to her confidence and ambition, but also put a target on her back, said Professor Glenn Altschuler, who teaches American studies at Cornell University.
“It will be very difficult for her to show a demonstrable documented success,” Prof Altschuler told The Straits Times.
“Biden himself has proven to be a very elusive target for Republicans,” he added.
“They haven’t really figured out a way to hit him hard and directly. That makes it even more likely that they will focus on Kamala Harris, given who she is, given Biden’s age, given the possibility that she will be a presidential aspirant in 2024 or 2028, given that she is a person of mixed race.”
Prof Altschuler added: “She has already become a favoured target of the Republicans, and that will only increase over time.”
More importantly, nothing promised so far has stemmed the flow of migrants.
On her return to the US, Mrs Harris told CNN: “We’ve got to give people some hope, that if they stay (in their home countries), help is on the way.”
But she offered nothing new, said Associate Professor Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera from the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in the US.
“The perception is that she is replicating to some extent the same failed policies from the Barack Obama years,” Prof Correa-Cabrera told ST.
“Addressing root causes, addressing corruption, sounds great (but)… people are not going to try and stop going to the United States when there are so many incentives to do it,” she said.
There is a saying in Spanish similar to “between a rock and a hard place” except that from the Spanish it translates into “between a sword and a wall”. And that is where the Vice-President is, Prof Correa-Cabrera said.
“She wants to be friends with everybody. But she will end up being a loser to everybody” she said.