Vice President Kamala Harris on Tuesday was meeting with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador as part of a two-day tour to the region to tackle what the Biden administration describes as the "root causes" of the crisis at the southern border -- as she faces criticism for failing to visit the border and remarks a day earlier on illegal migration.
Harris, who was appointed more than 70 days ago by President Biden to lead the diplomatic effort to stop the migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, met with Lopez Obrador on Tuesday afternoon ahead of a press conference later in the day. After a bilateral meeting at the National Palace in Mexico City, the pair announced they had agreed to expand collaboration on a range of economic and security issues.
While critics have blamed the recent crisis at the border on the Biden rollback of key Trump-era policies like the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) and border wall construction, the administration has instead pointed to root causes in Central America like poverty, an economic downturn and climate change.
Included in the agreements were a number of elements apparently designed to combat those root causes and other contributing factors, including a $130 million U.S. investment in Mexican workers’ protections and labor reform.
"The Vice President announced new U.S. commitments to foster investment in southern Mexico, including loans for affordable housing, support to strengthen rural value chains in cacao, coffee, and eco-tourism, trade and business development missions to support infrastructure projects, and aviation regulatory support to improve efficiencies," the White House said in a statement.
The agreement also includes partnering to address human trafficking and smuggling organizations, increased support for Mexican law enforcement and -- to address root causes of migration in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador -- a "new strategic partnership to share information and strategies and co-manage new programs to foster economic opportunity through agricultural development and youth empowerment."
Earlier in the day, Harris had appeared to avoid the migration issue in a tweet ahead of the day's visit.
Harris’ trip comes at an awkward time for the Mexicans, coming just days after the country held midterm elections. A Mexican government official told Reuters that the timing was "not ideal," and Sergio de la Pena, who served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs during the Trump administration, said the visit put the Mexican officials in a difficult position.
"She went to Mexico immediately following the Sunday midterm elections which kind of puts people in an awkward spot because they're up to their eyeballs trying to get through all of that and yet having to attend to a visit from one of the most significant partners in the region," he told Fox News on Tuesday.
"Whenever you do visits like this, you take a look at what issues are taking place in the partner nation she want to go visit, or whatever country you want to go visit – so why would you show up immediately after an election on Sunday for a visit on Tuesday?" he said.
De La Pena said it was part of a visit that he saw as confusing, due to the fact that the crisis is at the border -- not in the governments of Mexico and other countries.
"I'm not exactly sure what she's doing, which is the confusing part of it," he said. "If you want to stop immigration into the United States you comply with U.S. law. U.S. law says you don't come in here arbitrarily and yet that's exactly what we’re doing -- we’re allowing people to come in, especially if you’re a family unit, you report in then you’re put on a bus or a plane and off you go."
Harris has faced intense criticism for her handling of the issue, both for comments she made on migration and also her failure to visit the border amid a continuing crisis that saw more than 178,000 migrant encounters at the border in April alone.
On Tuesday, after meeting with the Guatemalan president, she gave a firm message on illegal migration.
"I want to emphasize that the goal of our work is to help Guatemalans find hope at home, at the same time I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making the dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border -- do not come, do not come," she said.
"The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border," she said. "There are legal methods by which migration can and should occur but we, as one of our priorities, will discourage illegal migration and I believe if you come to our border you will be turned back."
That remark drew criticism from Republicans, who said it was in sharp contrast to her past statements -- particularly as a senator and in the Democratic presidential candidate -- as well as picking up criticism from the Democratic Party’s left-flank.
"This is disappointing to see," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, tweeted. "First, seeking asylum at any US border is a 100% legal method of arrival. 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."
Harris also came under fire for being dismissive of a visit to the border. In an interview with NBC News that aired Tuesday, she laughed off a question about why she hadn’t yet been to the border.
"And I haven’t been to Europe," she laughed. "I don’t understand the point that you’re making."
The White House has pushed back against the constant criticism for her lack of visit to the border by arguing that she is in charge of diplomatic talks, not the border per se -- which is in the remit of the Department of Homeland Security.
But former Trump officials, including at DHS, have argued that understanding the border is vital if Harris wants to effectively lead diplomatic talks in the region.
De La Pena, who had recently visited the border, shared that assessment.
"The problems are at the U.S.-Mexico border," he said. "The problem is increased illegal immigration to the United States. You deal with it by seeing what is happening at our own border and then you can go back and see other things."
He was also pessimistic about Harris’ chances of success in meetings with the Mexican leader.
"I don't know that she's going to make a lot of headway with Lopez Obrador, because if Lopez Obrador sees her as someone who doesn’t have a strong negotiating position, he will do whatever he can to make sure he is getting out of the negotiation what he desires, and we’re going to find out how much she is willing to give up."