Biden’s Border Dilemma

gc4d2072db60702b4da8804d346b75621a4678f24f648d5ac4de49afdb35ae0b751890a0b6025d29d763903a16081f110ee1313b2d7e8605235c37198419a3d80_640.jpg
michael barebaro

Michael Barbaro is a reporter for The New York Times. This is The Daily.

This summer saw the highest number of attempted border crossings to the United States in nearly two decades. Natalie Kitroeff, my colleague, found that this has forced the Biden administration into a choice between two main goals: stopping migrants or stopping their root causes.

It is Thursday, August 26th.

Natalie, The last time I spoke on immigration on The Daily, it was during the Biden administration. There was a surge of unaccompanied children trying to cross from Mexico into the United States. The new president was forced to quickly devise a plan for the frontier. So tell us about that plan.

natalie kitroeff

In order to tackle migration, the administration launched a dual-pronged plan. The first was that they would enforce the border. They wanted to stop migrants getting across. This was going to be a completely different enforcement from what we had under Trump.

So Biden pretty quickly went about reversing Trump policies that Biden promised to undo. For example, they stopped immediately deporting young migrant children from Central America. They also ended Remain in Mexico, a program that made migrants applying for asylum in the United States to wait in Mexico for months, months and even years. Biden got rid of that.

michael barbaro

They are essentially removing some of the most harsh parts of Trump’s plan.

natalie kitroeff

That’s exactly. Biden called this the effort to address Central America’s roots causes of migration. The second prong of this approach was, you know, in many aspects, more ambitious. This effort was motivated by the fact that the administration recognized that the only long-term way to end these incessant migration cycles was to address the problems at the home. They wanted to take on the corrupt and unfair systems in Central America.

Kamala was his Vice President.

Archived recording (kamala Harris)

Well thank you, Mr. President, and for having the confidence in me. And,

natalie kitroeff

In March, they do this press conference together.

Archived recording (kamala Harris)

It’s clear that this is a difficult situation.

natalie kitroeff

The idea was to spend billions of dollars on this to really try to fundamentally change the calculus that drives people away from their hometowns.

Archived recording (kamala Harris)

While we are clear that people should not come to the border now, we also understand that we will enforce the law, and that we also– because we can chew gum and walk at the same time– let’s address the root causes that cause people to make the trek.

michael barbo

How did it all work? How can it be possible?

natalie kitroeff

Because there are so many factors that cause people to leave their country, including poverty, inequality and economic systems that do not work for the poor, there were many areas that needed attention. But one of the main focuses was corruption. According to the Biden Administration, this is because these countries have governments that do not work for the people, or for their citizens. People lose hope. They say that if they don’t get water after a hurricane then their mayor is stealing money from schools.

There is no chance that the people that are representing me in Congress and in the mayor’s office– that they’re ever going to really care about me. And so I must leave. So the idea was they were going to go into these countries, and somehow, persuade them, work with them to fix endemic corruption as a way of kind of getting at that hopelessness, that feeling that my government doesn’t work for me.

michael barbaro

You can eliminate corruption and you can remove one of the most dangerous clouds over these people.

natalie kitroeff

You are exactly right.

michael barbaro

Okay, that’s the theory. What does the actual act of eradicating corruption look for Harris and Biden respectively?

natalie kitroeff

First, it seems like another major reversal in the pattern we saw under Trump, who was really only interested in a transactional relationship with Central America. The idea was that Trump would not interfere with the internal business of Central American leaders if they attempted to intercept migrants.

It was decided to establish the tone early that there would soon be a new sheriff.

Archived recording

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

natalie kitroeff

So Vice President Harris goes to Guatemala City with President Giammattei. They host a huge press conference. This is the moment that the vice president will launch this effort.

archived recording

[NON ENGLISH SPAEECH]

Archived recording (kamala Harirs)

Thank you, President.

natalie kitroeff

It is quite remarkable and very stern.

archived recording (kamala harris)

I was able to talk with the president about anti-corruption’s importance.

natalie kitroeff

She very clearly states it:

Archived recording (kamala Harirs)

We have to follow the money. We must stop it. And that’s what we intend to do. You can trust me when I say that

natalie kitroeff

The United States will fight corruption wherever it’s found.

Archived recording (kamala Harris)

We are here to help Guatemalans have hope.

natalie kitroeff

This is a significant statement to make in Guatemala, a country that has struggled with the issue for many years. You know the press leaps at this.

archived recording

[NON ENGLISH SPEECH]

natalie kitroeff

They then asked President Giammattei: “So you know, how about this?” He is very confused during the meeting. He turns to them.

Archived recording

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

natalie kitroeff

I’m going back to answer the question. What number of corruption cases have you been involved?

archived recording

[NON ENGLISH SPEECH]

natalie kitroeff

It’s 0. However, in Guatemala’s background, there are many things going on. The president is also involved.

michael Barbaro

What does this mean?

natalie kitroeff

Now, the Guatemalan president is being asked the same questions at the press conference as the vice president. He has been accused of increasing corruption in the months prior to this meeting.

Guatemala’s most powerful anti-corruption team searched the house of its former secretary in May in search for $16 million worth of information. This unit was looking for suitcases containing $16 million in late 2020. Then a few months later, according to documents that we received, a witness comes forward to this anti-corruption unit and says that he has information about the president negotiating a $2.6 million campaign contribution in exchange for maintaining government contracts.

This becomes a very serious issue in Guatemala. And it’s something that kind of sets up this trip as a pretty bold action on the part of the vice president.

michael barbaro

That’s right, because it implies that Vice President Harris doesn’t just deliver a theoretical message regarding corruption and migration. She’s speaking to a Guatemalan leader who has been accused of corruption. It almost seems as if she is saying to him, “Yes. I mean you too.”

natalie kitroeff

This is exactly right. That’s how it was received in Guatemala. She is at the forefront of the fight.

The next few weeks will be more challenging.

After the vice president leaves Guatemala City, another witness comes forward to the anti-corruption unit. He said that he personally delivered a rolled carpet filled with cash to the home of the president.

michael barbaro

Wow.

natalie kitroeff

This is one of the strongest allegations against President Obama. It’s yet another corruption allegation that directly implicates Guatemalan’s most powerful man. Just as the unit’s prosecutor is busy compiling evidence and working on the case, he was abruptly fired at the end July.

michael barbaro

Whom?

natalie kitroeff

The attorney general of Guatemala fired him. He was a friend of the president of Guatemala. This is someone who is very closely linked to the president. The prosecution flees the country with all of the evidence, and the evidence is given to U.S. law enforcement officials.

At this moment, Washington sees Guatemala as ignoring the United States, which has just arrived to tell them that this fight against corruption is their priority. Guatemala is looking at the Americans and saying, “We don’t care.” We’re going after the corruption prosecutor.

michael barbo

You are right. It would appear to be a serious omission from the message that Vice President Harris delivered in Guatemala City. Given this, how will the Biden Administration respond to Guatemala’s president’s behavior?

natalie kitroeff

You can’t do it all, honestly.

It is widely believed in Guatemala that there isn’t a fast punishment. It raises the question of how serious the Biden administration is about the fight against corruption. Also, why wasn’t the punishment more severe after Vice President Harris made his speech vowing to eradicate corruption at every level. What was it that prevented them from doing so?

michael barbaro

We’ll be there.

Natalie, what stops the White House pursuing its goal of eliminating corruption in a country like Guatemala more effectively? It is this that explains their rather inept response.

natalie kitroeff

Well, imagine that after these allegations come out, after the president fires this prosecutor, the administration announces a series of sanctions. They really criticized the president. They withdrew visas from high-ranking officials. That could put the country in a really unstable situation with protests. The government’s response to these protests is unknown. In the eyes of the administration, there are many potential short-term consequences for destabilizing Guatemala.

michael Barbaro

Right. It could also leave the country in a situation where more people believe that fleeing to the United States is the only way to escape. This would be a major drawback to the Biden-Harris plan.

natalie kitroeff

Right. The number of border crossings rose more than two decades ago in July. And this is in the heat of the summer months, when you usually see these numbers drop, because crossing the desert in the Southwest is really dangerous.

And so the administration is looking at massive waves of people coming from this region to the border. They don’t want that to get worse. However, they also strongly believe that if the broken systems and governments that cause these people to lose faith and leave their home, then you won’t be able to end the cycle.

So their short-term goal of stopping these flows, and their long-term goal of stopping the fundamental dynamics that lead to them in the first place– I mean, they’re kind of at odds right now.

michael barbaro

You are right. You’re right, Biden and Harris. Those huge numbers, which you just described, are an additional incentive not to punish leaders as a way to destabilize Guatemala or rock the boat. However, punishing corrupt leaders from places like Guatemala is only going to encourage them to be even more corrupt.

And the fact that they know that the U.S. won’t hold them accountable means that the White House is really never going to get anywhere when it comes to these long-term root causes of migration, such as corruption.

natalie kitroeff

Yes. This is the Biden administration’s dilemma across Central America, where corruption honestly, is only getting worse and worse. These countries are becoming less and smaller for citizens to call home and feel like their governments are doing their best for them.

I mean, in Nicaragua, president Daniel Ortega has arrested almost every single opposition candidate that would have run against him in the elections this year. El Salvador’s president and the ruling party have both replaced the attorney General, disqualified five judges and replaced them. He wants to change the constitution to allow for longer term limits. And in Honduras, the president has been accused in U.S. court of being linked to drug trafficking.

michael barebaro

And the United States has not followed through on its threats to eliminate corruption. And so the leaders of these countries– in Honduras, and El Salvador, and in Nicaragua– must think to themselves that what Kamala Harris said in that speech in Guatemala is more words than a real threat.

natalie kitroeff

It’s what I feel when I talk with people from the region. They’re trying very hard in administration to do both. They are trying.

Their actions have not been enough for them to know that there’s going be any real retribution. It remains to see how all this plays out and whether or not the Biden administration will be able to change the calculus.

For now, however, the presidents in Central America seem to be calling the Biden administration’s jokes.

michael barbaro

So Natalie, if this second prong of the Biden-Harris immigration plan, which is fighting the long-term cause of it, like corruption, if that’s not quite working yet, that makes me wonder about the first prong, which is enforcement at the border. And as we have talked about, the Biden-Harris people don’t want their enforcement to be as harsh as the Trump administration’s approach. They’ve even reversed some of his most controversial programmes.

But, overall, is it resulting in a less effective approach at reducing border crossers than the Trump administration? What should this approach be?

natalie kitroeff

Therefore, the Biden administration has made it clear that its goal is to avoid a situation at the border. That kind of chaos is not what the Biden administration wants. This standard is the only way to prove that what they are doing in enforcement has worked.

When I speak to people making this trip north, they tell me that part of it is because they find the Biden administration more welcoming. And there is this question swirling within the administration around Washington, around whether maybe, President Biden removed some of these Trump policies so quickly that it signaled to people who were in Central America and in Mexico that there was an open door in the United States.

In reality, the Supreme Court has made the decision that enforcement should be harsher. It is actually happening right now. Because the Supreme Court seems to have ordered that the administration restart the Remain In Mexico program. It seems that there will be no other choice.

The administration is going to have to go back to this Trump-era policy that basically told migrants, you will not seek asylum here. You must wait in a border town in Mexico.

michael barbaro

What does all this mean for the Biden administration?

natalie kitroeff

I mean, it leaves them in this really tough spot, in which their long-term strategy of rooting out corruption in Central America, of dealing with these governments and with the problems in these countries is just going to take a really long time to pan out. They have this immediate crisis at the border which demands their attention and makes it very difficult to take actions that would bring about the fight against corruption.

It is difficult to balance the short-term and long-term migration goals. Many people in the administration feel like they are not achieving their objectives and they don’t have time to pursue strategies to address the root causes. And so for now, they just need to deal with the border.

michael barbaro

Natalie, I’m very grateful.

natalie kitroeff

Thanks, Michael.

michael barbo

We will be right back.

Here are more things to know.

archived recording (tony blinken)

Many of you have asked how many U.S. citizens remain in Afghanistan who want to leave the country.

michael barbo

As the August 31 deadline for a total U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan approaches, Secretary of State, Tony Blinken said that about 1,500 U.S. citizens remain in the country and that about a third of them want to be evacuated.

archived recording (tony blinken)

We are reaching out to them aggressively multiple times per hour through multiple channels of communication: phone, email, SMS, and text message. Our goal is to determine if they still want leave and to give them the most current information as well as instructions for how to do that.

michael barbaro

Blinken stated that some Americans in Afghanistan might not want to leave but that the government will still try to contact them. The pace at which evacuations continue to increase is alarming.

On Wednesday afternoon, the U.S. said it had flown more than 19,000 people out of Kabul in the previous 24 hours. However, security at the airport continues to be a challenge. On Wednesday, the U.S. urged Americans to avoid Kabul’s airport due to security threats.

Rob Szypko (producer), Sydney Harper (editor) and Asthaa chaturvedi (engineer). The episode was edited by Rachel Quester (Larissa Anderson), Dave Shaw (and Chris Wood) and engineered by Chris Wood. Original music by Marion Lozano, Dan Powell.

That’s it for The Daily. I’m Michael Barbaro. Tomorrow we will see each other.

[music]

Please Post Your Comments & Reviews

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *