On her first foreign trip as vice-president, Harris visited Guatemala on Monday. At a press conference with Guatemala’s president, Alejandro Giammattei, the former California senator spoke about investigating corruption and human trafficking in Central America, and described a future where Guatemalans could find “hope at home”.
But she also had a clear message that undocumented Guatemalan migrants would not find solace at the US border under the Biden administration.
“I want to be clear to folks in the region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border,” she said. “Do not come. Do not come.”
Later on Monday, Oscasio-Cortez criticized Harris on Twitter, calling her comments “disappointing to see”.
“First, seeking asylum at any US border is a 100% legal method of arrival,” said the congresswoman, an influential voice on the Democratic left since her upset win in a 2018 primary and widely known as AOC.
“Second, the US spent decades contributing to regime change and destabilization in Latin America. We can’t help set someone’s house on fire and then blame them for fleeing.”
Several human rights groups also spoke out.
Rachel Schmidtke, a Latin America advocate at the non-profit Refugees International, said: “We continue to urge the Biden administration to build policies that recognize that many Guatemalans will need to seek protection until the longstanding drivers of forced displacement are addressed and realign its message to the Guatemalan people to reflect America’s commitment to the right to seek protection internationally.”
The Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, a non-profit that works with asylum seekers, tweeted: “Kamala Harris, seeking asylum is legal. Turning back asylum seekers is illegal, dangerous, & oftentimes sends them back to their deaths. Seeking asylum is a right under US and international law.”
Harris, who visited Mexico on Tuesday, also faced questions about her choice not to visit the US-Mexico border as part of her trip, saying that her focus was on addressing the “root causes” that prompt migrants to flee their homes.
“I’m in Guatemala because my focus is dealing with the root causes of migration,” Harris told NBC’s Lester Holt. “There may be some who think that that is not important, but it is my firm belief that if we care about what’s happening at the border, we better care about the root causes and address them.”
During the NBC interview, she dismissed a question on why she hadn’t yet visited the border as vice-president by responding, “and I haven’t been to Europe. And I mean, I don’t understand the point that you’re making. I’m not discounting the importance of the border.” Speaking to reporters in Mexico City, she also pledged she would eventually visit to the border.
Despite Joe Biden moving to undo Trump-era restrictions at the border, including instituting changes to the asylum process, Harris’s speech on Monday underlined a continued stance of turning back undocumented migrants.
Central America has long been affected by poverty and violence, amid entrenched cycles of political instability partly caused by criminal elites. Experts contend the US has often aided oppressive regimes. Despite the litany of dangers migrants often face when traveling north, the journey is often safer than remaining at home.
“People are leaving because the corrupt governments (supported by the US) have tolerated and encouraged the growth of these criminal organizations,” said Jeff Faux, the founder of the Economic Policy Institute, in an interview with USA Today.
In April, according to CNN, more than 178,000 migrants arrived at the US-Mexico border, the highest one-month total in two decades.
The Associated Press contributed reporting