Harris, at Summit of the Americas, doubles down on ‘root causes’ explanation for migrant crisis

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Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday, at the Summit of the Americas, again doubled down on the “root causes” explanation for the ongoing and historic migrant crisis at the U.S. southern border — as she announced more investment in Central America.

“We gather today in pursuit of a shared goal: to build a prosperous and inclusive future for the people of the Western Hemisphere,” Harris said at a CEO summit in Los Angeles.

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Harris was tasked by President Biden in March last year with leading the diplomatic outreach to tackle the “root causes” of migration, which the administration believes is driving the massive migrant numbers hitting the border. Those root causes include climate change, violence, poverty and economic insecurity.

As part of that effort, Harris has been attempting to rally private sector investment to the region — particularly into Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. On Tuesday she announced that a total of $3.2 billion in commitments from private sector companies had been secured, as well as a youth community service program.

Vice President Kamala Harris smiles while speaking during a roundtable discussion with faith leaders in Los Angeles, Monday, June 6, 2022. Harris discussed challenges, including women's reproductive rights and the rise of hate. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Vice President Kamala Harris smiles while speaking during a roundtable discussion with faith leaders in Los Angeles, Monday, June 6, 2022. Harris discussed challenges, including women’s reproductive rights and the rise of hate. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

In her speech on Wednesday, she gave a hypothetical of a single mother in Honduras with no education who then benefits from a job from a beverage company investing in the region — combined with an aid program giving her children lunch and a financial company opening a bank account for her. 

In turn, a telecommunications company invests in Internet in the hypothetical woman’s town and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) gives her a grant to establish an eco-tourism business, which in turn grows and allows her to hire employees.

“This story illustrates what I believe is possible when governments and business truly integrate our approach. This scenario is, then, our vision for millions of people as part of our strategy to address the root causes of migration from Central America,” she said. 

Harris told attendees that there are three principles guiding her outlooks.

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“First, I do believe most people don’t want to leave home. They don’t want to leave their grandmother. They don’t want to leave the place where they worship and the community that they’ve always known,” she said. “And so, when they do, it is usually for one of two reasons: They are fleeing harm, or to stay means they simply cannot satisfy their basic needs or the needs of their family.”

The other principles are that governments cannot act alone, and that any strategy must prioritize combating corruption, reducing violence, empowering women and promoting the rule of law. 

June 7, 2022: Migrants, many from Central American and Venezuela, walk along the Huehuetan highway in Chiapas state, Mexico. The group left Tapachula on Monday, tired of waiting to normalize their status in a region with little work and still far from their ultimate goal of reaching the United States. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

June 7, 2022: Migrants, many from Central American and Venezuela, walk along the Huehuetan highway in Chiapas state, Mexico. The group left Tapachula on Monday, tired of waiting to normalize their status in a region with little work and still far from their ultimate goal of reaching the United States. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

“So, these are the guiding principles that inform our Root Causes Strategy. And this strategy is aligned with the importance that many of the leaders here know and live — the importance of paying attention to a good return on investment, consistency and predictability, a skilled workforce, and a reliable infrastructure,” she said.

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She hailed the investments that the “Call to Action” had secured, which she said is on track to generate “tens of thousands of jobs” and help others access banking services, credit and the Internet.

So far, it is unclear what effect if any, the strategy is having on migration. Migrant numbers have surged dramatically since March last year, with more than 234,000 in April — a number which outpaces comparable numbers from last year. That number is expected to rise over the summer and if the Biden administration stops expelling migrants under the Title 42 public health order.

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Harris has previously sought to lower expectations of her work producing immediate results: “But none of this is going to be just turning on a switch. It requires focus, it requires intention, it requires an investment over a period of time, which means, in the short point, is that you’re not going to see the benefit of it overnight – because the problems didn’t occur overnight,” she said in February.